Azarenka tries to ignore the pressure


TENNIS: Australian OpenVictoria Azarenka will try to ignore her status as defending Australian Open champion – and the pressure which goes with it – when she gets her campaign under way at Melbourne Park tonight.

The world number one meets Romania’s Monica Niculescu as she bids to repeat her feat of 12 months ago, when she landed her first grand slam title.

Rather than dwell on the past, though, the Belarusian is simply focusing on starting 2013 in positive fashion.

“I’m not here to defend the title, I am here to win, to play tennis,” she said. “It’s my position, my mentality going into and starting the tournament.”

Azarenka admits, however, that her win here last year, when she crushed Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-0 in the final, proved a turning point in her career.


“It gave me more self-belief. I always thought of myself as a really good player, but that mental edge I had made the difference. It definitely helps to bring a lot of inner confidence, knowing you can do it. That feeling I had was incredible and since then I want to feel it again.”

Despite being top of the world rankings and the defending champion, Azarenka is not the title favourite.

That honour belongs to Serena Williams, who has emerged victorious in 52 of her last 54 matches – a run which saw her win Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal and the US Open in a blistering end to 2012.

Her form has prompted talk of the American targeting a Grand Slam this season.

But Williams insists becoming the first woman to achieve the feat since Steffi Graf in 1988 is a tough ask.

“That’s an incredible goal,” she said. “It hasn’t been done since the 80s. I don’t know if I can do it. Maybe someone else can, we’ll see, but it’s tough to say.”

Collarbone injury

Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena today when she takes on Russian countrywoman Olga Puchkova. The second seed was forced to skip the warm-up event in Brisbane due to a collarbone injury and she admits her lack of match practice is likely to mean a different mental approach.

“I think you have to give yourself extra slack in case you do make a few more errors,” she said. “You don’t concentrate maybe as well as you would if you were in that match groove. But just because you’re rusty doesn’t mean you’re not going to play well.”

Novak Djokovic opens his 2013 grand slam campaign today — and the men’s world number one accepts he needs to be at his best from the outset.

Djokovic is attempting to make history as the first man in the Open era to win three successive Australian Open titles, but was handed a tricky first hurdle to negotiate in the form of experienced Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Mathieu, who turned 31 yesterday, has twice reached the fourth round in Melbourne and will provide a stiff early test for the Serbian.

“The draw is something you cannot affect,” said Djokovic. “It’s not in your hands so you just try to take it one match at a time, focus on your next opponent, your next challenge.”

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