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10/17/2012

Dancing on her toes to the beats she hears in her headphones, Victoria Azarenka's prematch preparation makes her resemble a college kid bouncing across campus. And Azarenka has schooled virtually every opponent not named Serena Williams this year in posting a 67-8 record, including a 13-0 mark without surrendering a set since she fell to a surging Serena in last month's U.S. Open final.

It's been a season of firsts for Azarenka, who became the first Belarusian to reach No. 1 and the first woman to skip No. 2 in securing the top spot for the first time, but how long will her reign last?

The tennis landscape is littered with players -- Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki -- who rose to the top spot only to tumble down the rankings. Azarenka is different; the foundation of her game is firmer. She plays with more margin on her heavy shots, enabling her to deconstruct opponents with power and precision. Her two-handed backhand is one of the most lethal shots in tennis, and her return game is so dangerous she can dictate play while receiving -- all elements that can create an extended stay at the top.

"Vika is probably the best returner in the game," 10th-ranked Marion Bartoli said after falling to Azarenka in the Beijing semifinals earlier this month. "It was not really me getting broke; it was her returning amazing."

Although Azarenka had never advanced to a major final prior to winning the Australian Open in January, she annihilated Maria Sharapova's second serve in the Melbourne final, winning 14 of 17 points played on the Russian's second delivery in administering a 6-3, 6-0 thrashing. Barring injury or complete collapse, Azarenka should finish as year-end No. 1 for the first time, but she's hardly a one-hit wonder.

The Belarusian has three consecutive top-10 finishes to her credit and has toughened up considerably this season. There was a time when opponents could hope she'd physically fade or mentally fold. Times have changed, and Azarenka's authoritative three-set record -- she's 12-1 in three-setters this year with her lone loss coming to Serena in New York, after she served for the match -- as well as the fact that she's thrived despite seldom enjoying support as a crowd favorite (some fans in Melbourne mocked her shrieking during her title run Down Under) point to her growth from a sometimes-flaky player who seemed to sweat the small stuff to a more mature problem solver who is 18-1 versus top-10 opponents not named Serena this year and 0-4 versus the 15-time Grand Slam champion.

"I think many people expected her to win a Grand Slam earlier than she did," Sharapova said of Azarenka before they met in the U.S. Open semifinals last month. "She always had a solid game. I mean, she was always a little mentally fragile. Felt like she would bang her racquet and yell, and you kind of see that on the court. But I think with age and maturing that obviously you learn so much by playing matches. You learn what helps you get motivated, what helps you get going."

Martina Hingis summed up the challenge of defending No. 1, saying: "It's always easier being the hunter than the hunted." Azarenka is unique in that she is both hunter and hunted. Vika is world No. 1, but Serena is the world's most dangerous player and has dominated the Minsk-born baseliner, winning 10 of their 11 matches. Complacency is not an option for Azarenka because she knows if she doesn't improve and Serena plays a full schedule, the 31-year-old American can surpass her. But Serena has made it clear winning majors, rather than regaining No. 1, is her top priority. Petra Kvitova, the only other top-10 player who owns a winning record versus Azarenka, can be a more complete and creative player, but was not nearly as consistent as Vika this year. Focusing on three areas can help Azarenka stay ahead of the pack:

• Strengthen her serve. Her ground strokes are so sharp, if Azarenka can work the wide serve even more effectively, it will set her up for the first strike. And once she gets the opponent moving, she can turn rallies into one-way traffic.

• Pick up her play on clay. Thirteen of Azarenka's 14 career titles have come on hard court. She's had her moments on grass -- reaching successive Wimbledon semifinals, winning the Olympic bronze medal in singles and partnering with Max Mirnyi to strike gold in mixed doubles on the lawns of SW19 last summer -- and posted a 12-3 mark on clay in 2012, including runner-up results in Stuttgart and Madrid, but has yet to break through at the premier clay-court events.

• Learn to transition. Azarenka has worked with former No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo to improve her transition game and net play; if she can incorporate those qualities, it will give her more options and make her deep drives even more dangerous.

Azarenka's 34 weeks at No. 1 mean she's already occupied the top spot longer than notable names including Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Venus Williams. Of course, getting to No. 1 is one challenge and staying there can be an even more demanding task, but as she wraps up the best year of her career, Azarenka's best tennis should still be ahead of her.