INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - Nine days ago she was on the verge of it all coming to an end, just two points from losing her opening match. But no one has more belief these days, and after surviving that one Victoria Azarenka just got better - now she is the Indian Wells champion and 23-0 on the year.
Last Friday, Azarenka survived a three-hour thriller against young German Mona Barthel, originally leading 64 51 but eventually finding herself down 4-1 in the third set, even two points from losing down 5-3, 30-0 - she was two points from losing again in the tie-break but managed to scrape through, 64 67(4) 76(6).
Azarenka had beaten Barthel routinely at the Australian Open and Doha.
"I never really heard much about her before this year, and now I have to play her every tournament!" Azarenka said afterwards. "She really stepped it up and showed incredible strokes and serves. All the credit to her. It was survival."
No one would come close again. The No.1-ranked Azarenka lost a total of just nine games in her next three matches, then scored a 64 63 win over No.15 seed Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, which would be her next-closest match all tournament long - that win pushed her 2012 record to 22-0, making hers the best start to a season since Martina Hingis went 37-0 to kick 1997 off.
In a rare match-up between the Top 2, in fact the first WTA final featuring the Top 2 in more than four years, Azarenka faced World No.2 Maria Sharapova in the final, a head-to-head she has dominated as of late, winning all three of their previous finals in straight sets. In their last one at the Australian Open in January, she won nine straight games from 3-all to run away with it, 63 60.
Sunday's final looked like a continuation, as Azarenka hugged the baseline and kept Sharapova from taking any kind of consistent control, building a 62 30 lead - with points for 62 40. Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam champion and a former No.1, found an opening and won three of four games to close to 62 43, but Azarenka won a pair of routine games to seal victory, 62 63.
Azarenka improved to 5-3 lifetime against Sharapova, all five of her wins coming in straight sets (two of Sharapova's wins were three-setters, one a retirement).
"There's nothing I do particularly differently against her, I'm just trying to do my best and play every point," Azarenka told Pam Shriver on court afterwards. "I know Maria is a fighter though, so I know I can't relax even a little bit. If she has a window she'll take it, so I had to be aggressive and keep the pressure on."
Azarenka is now 23-0 on the year and has won all four tournaments she has played, at Sydney, the Australian Open, Doha and here at Indian Wells.
"Last year was a learning experience for me," she said. "Every loss I analyzed and step by step just built on everything, just daily hard work. I had a lot of tough losses last year and so now I'm really trying to turn it around in my own favor. I have just been trying to be consistent and professional every day.
"I never dreamed this would happen."
Sharapova's sparkling record in WTA finals is still sparkling despite the loss: 24-15. The Russian was a champion at the BNP Paribas Open back in 2006.
"Victoria is extremely solid and makes you work for every point," Sharapova said. "She's really fit, as well, and you can sense she's playing with a lot of confidence when she's moving around the court and hitting the ball. She really forces you to want to do more than you either should or would want to.
"I just made too many unforced errors at the wrong times. I wasn't solid enough. But it's okay, I'm sure we're going to play each other a few more times."
Sharapova was still happy with her tournament: "It was good to be back in the final, to get one step further than last year. I love this stretch of two tournaments - they're very great tournaments. They're close to home for me, both in California and Miami, so I love playing them. I'm looking forward to next week."