Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - With Serena Williams resting comfortably atop the women's world tennis rankings for now, can Victoria Azarenka challenge the mighty American's reign in the near future?
The current world No. 2 and former No. 1 Azarenka believes she's closing the gap between herself and the 17-time Grand Slam great.
"Serena is playing the best tennis of her life and so am I," Azarenka said recently. "It's been really noticeable the gap from last year we have in the matches has minimized. I've beaten her twice this year. No one else has done that. It's just exciting to be in the era of somebody and competing with somebody who is considered the best ever and being their toughest opponent."
Sure, Serena is a dominant 13-3 lifetime against Vika, including a laughable 8-0 record in their Grand Slam meetings, but the reigning two-time Australian Open champ is 2-2 versus the formidable American this year, with all four meetings, as you would imagine, coming in finals.
Heading into this season, Serena had won nine straight matches against her Belarusian counterpart, dating back to 2009.
Last year, Serena outlasted Vika in three sets in one of the best-ever women's finals at the U.S. Open, and the now 32-year-old American powerhouse prevailed in another tense three-setter in this year's finale in Flushing.
Azarenka actually served for the title in last year's showdown in the Big Apple, before Serena rallied; and the Minsk native overcame a 1-4 deficit in the second set of this year's noisy (plenty of unnecessary grunting and shrieking) final in Queens to force a deciding third.
The 24-year-old Belarusian, however, did beat Serena in hardcourt finals in Doha and Cincinnati this year, which would suggest that she does indeed have what it takes to possibly dethrone the champ. I said possibly.
"Serena is the best ever to me," Azarenka said. "I cannot judge somebody who I never played before, but for me, overall the game of tennis has elevated and the evolution of the game raised up so much that it's hard to compare."
Azarenka has appeared in four of the last eight Grand Slam finals (2-2), while Serena has captured four of the last six major championships. Vika has also appeared in at least the semifinals in seven of the last 10 Slams, including her first-ever trek in the French Open final four back in June. She still needs to reach finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, where she'd appeared in back-to-back semis before pulling out of the draw in the second round this year because of a knee injury.
Having said all that, a slumping Azarenka has had a disappointing fall since falling at the hands of Serena in New York. The Belarusian, slowed by an illness, lost to Serena's fading older sister Venus in her first match in Tokyo last week, and was stunned by German Andrea Petkovic in yet another event-opening affair in Beijing this week, this after amassing 15 double faults.
If you include the loss versus Serena in Gotham, Azarenka has stunningly dropped her last three matches on tour, her worst skid since 2010 when she was ranked outside the Top 10.
Yes, Serena has been dominant, but the Minsk native does appear to be inching closer. Can she get close enough? Their eight-year age difference would suggest that it's only a matter of time.
Or is it?