“I am honored to have the comparison because he is a great champion, but I have a lot of work to do to catch up with him,” Azarenka said. Djokovic went 41 matches unbeaten at the start of last season.
The 22-year-old Azarenka is the top-seeded player at the Dubai Tennis Championships, which started Monday amid a rash of withdrawals. The field also includes defending champion Caroline Wozniacki and U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur, but Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, French Open winner Li Na and Vera Zvonareva all withdrew because of illness and injury.
Last week, Zvonareva retired from the Qatar Open while trailing Monica Niculescu of Romania 7-5, 3-2 because of pain in her left hip. Kvitova pulled out of that event with an unspecified injury.
However, Azarenka shook off a lingering ankle injury to win the Qatar Open on Sunday, routing Australia’s Stosur 6-1, 6-2.
The Belorussian’s 17th straight victory sealed her first title since replacing Wozniacki at the top of the rankings after winning in Melbourne. The Doha victory was Azarenka’s third title of 2012, having started out by winning the Sydney tournament.
“I am enjoying a moment a lot,” Azarenka said. “I did not practice today, giving my foot a rest and hopefully (it will) heal.”
Like Djokovic, Azarenka couldn’t single out a particular change in her game or training to explain her start to the season—one she might not even have played after almost quitting tennis a year ago, following early defeats in Doha and Dubai.
“It’s hard to say it’s one thing. Behind that (success) is a lot of hard work, some unfortunate losses last year, and some good losses I learnt from last year,” Azarenka said. “I am also a more mature player. I have a better mind, a clearer mind. I know what I am doing.”
Rather than quitting, Azarenka took a brief break and returned to tennis to have her best season in 2011, winning 55 of 72 matches to finish the year at No. 3.
She returned in 2012, winning the Australian Open and becoming No. 1 for the first time in her career.
Azarenka also credits her transformation to a greater maturity on the court instilled by her coach Sam Sumyk and improved fitness which has helped cut down on injuries and given her greater stamina.
Hindered in the past by her emotions, Azarenka no longer has midcourt meltdowns, muttering to herself or even dissolving in tears when she starts losing control of a match.
“I am also a year older and I behave more like a lady than a crazy kid,” Azarenka said, adding that despite the transformation she will remain an emotional player.
“I will always play with my heart and with my passion,” she said.
Azarenka will meet Germany’s Julia Goerges in her opening match on Wednesday.
Goerges advanced to the second round Monday after defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter: @AO_Sports)