Victoria Azarenka wins third Miami Open crown, will rise to No.5 in the world

Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, reacts after defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova, of Russia, 6-3, 6-2, to win the Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, reacts after defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova, of Russia, 6-3, 6-2, to win the Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Key Biscayne, Fla. El Nuevo Herald

Victoria Azarenka checked the Miami weather forecast for Saturday afternoon, saw the temperature was expected to soar to 90 degrees with high humidity, and braced herself for a grueling midday Miami Open women’s final against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

That, she said, might explain why her 6-3, 6-2 victory wasn’t as pretty as spectators would have liked. But she was still delighted to win her third title here, her third title this year, and improve her season record to a tour-best 22-1.

The former world No. 1 moves up to No. 5 after dropping below 30 in 2014 following a pair of injury-plagued seasons. And although Serena Williams is still ranked No. 1, Williams hasn’t won a title since last August, and Azaranka is inspired to regain her status as one of the dominant players on tour.

Azarenka became just the third woman to complete the “Sunshine Sweep’’ — back-to-back titles in the desert conditions of Indian Wells, California, and the steamy, windy conditions in Key Biscayne.

Kim Clijsters did it in 2005, and Steffi Graf did it in 1994 and ’96.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the conditions,’’ Azarenka said. “It was pretty rough. It was really humid and hot. And even though it didn’t seem like it was a lot of wind, [there were] a lot of gusts. It created a lot of difficulty to serve, especially on the side against the sun.”

Kuznetsova agreed: “I don’t think it was unbelievable tennis, and it was difficult conditions. But, look, I did what I could, and today was not definitely my good day. I couldn’t see the ball [at the start], but it got better. At 1:00, 1:15 it’s bad sun. [At] 1:30, 1:40 moves a little bit away. On the deuce side it’s really bad for couple games and then goes to ad side. So you have to just hang in there.”

There were breaks of serve in eight of the first nine games, with Azarenka managing the only hold. Azarenka kicked the ball in frustration at one point during the match and hit another ball into the stands, drawing a code violation.

But when all was said and done, Azarenka had firmly re-established herself one of the tour’s top players after fading into an afterthought in 2014. Foot and thigh injuries limited her, and she questioned whether she would ever be healthy enough to win big tournaments.

She also lacked some hunger after reaching the pinnacle of her sport. But Azarenka never for a moment questioned her ability, she said.

“The most difficult thing that would hold me back was my body wasn’t responding well to training, to matches, and I was unhealthy, I wasn’t fit enough,” she said. “And, after I think the point when you reach your goals, number one, Grand Slams, there’s a tip of mentality where you kind of drop your motivation a little bit, if you don’t put the work in it can sway you away.

“I definitely had some difficulties mentally to get back with my motivation, but I never doubted my abilities. … I believe in myself. I believe I’m good. If you don’t believe you’re the best, you might as well not go out there.”

She attributed her recent success to her hard work during the offseason with trainer Jean Pierre Bruyere.

“He kicked my butt,” she said.

Azarenka said she is highly motivated to have a good clay season and prove detractors wrong who say she can’t win on that surface. Asked about the possibility of overtaking Williams as No. 1, the Belarussian heaped praise on the American.

“Serena is, I have said it many times, one of the players who makes me push myself and with the stats and records she owns, she’s the toughest competitor out there,” Azarenka said. “For me, there is a great challenge to have her, because it always will push me to improve.”

Kuznetsova was asked if the women’s game is opening up with Williams struggling a bit.

“I feel that Serena, she can get on top of the game, as with [Azarenka],” Kuznetsova said. “There are good players who can shock top players, and it’s quite open. But you have to see how Serena will go to clay. You never know. If she’s [in a] good mood, not good mood, good fit, not fit, you never know. But when Serena is her best, I mean, it’s tough.”

In the men’s doubles final, the French No. 5 seeds of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut defeated unseeded Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Rajeev Ram of the United States 5-7, 6-1, 10-7. It was the French team’s 10th victory in a row after winning their first Masters title at Indian Wells. They are the first French team to win the doubles title in Key Biscayne.

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