By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka is relishing her return to Melbourne Park as double defending champion and while Serena Williams is a hot favourite to deny her a hat-trick of titles, the Belarusian says she will not focus solely on the challenge from the world number one.
Azarenka's two grand slam titles have both been achieved without facing the American, who was eliminated in both those tournaments after being hobbled by foot injuries.
As second seed on the lower half of the draw, Azarenka would not meet Williams until the final but the 24-year-old was reluctant to talk up their grand slam rivalry, which has her on the wrong side of an 8-0 head-to-head record.
When asked by reporters on Sunday if Williams was the player to beat in Melbourne, Azarenka responded: "Well, if you meet her, yes.
"But I think everybody is the one to beat here. We have such a high competition right now.
"You always have to look for every opponent you play. You cannot look past anybody because everybody is prepared, everybody wants it badly.
"(Regarding) her last season, of course, everybody will be motivated to beat her."
Azarenka controversially avoided Williams in the leadup to last year's tournament when she pulled out of their match at the Brisbane International citing an infected toenail from a bad pedicure.
She was beaten in straight sets for this year's Brisbane title by Williams, however, the American landing a psychological blow before the year's first grand slam.
Azarenka said that defeat had no impact on her confidence.
"I think it was a great preparation, the whole week in Brisbane, to play actually so many different types of players," she said. "That's what you want to get in the beginning of the season and in preparation for the event like this."
Azarenka faces 90th-ranked Swede Johanna Larsson in her first round match on Tuesday, a player she beat comfortably in straight sets in the opening round of the 2011 U.S. Open, their sole meeting.
An intriguing matchup looms against 13th seed Sloane Stephens in the fourth round.
The pair played in a semi-final last year, a match plunged into controversy when Azarenka took a prolonged medical time-out after blowing five match points against the young American.
Former players and pundits accused Azarenka of gamesmanship and the Belarusian displayed commendable grit in the face of one of the most hostile crowds in memory at Melbourne Park when she beat sentimental favourite Li Na for the title.
On the eve of the final, Azarenka launched a media campaign to try to swing public opinion in her favour, and she was on the front foot again on Sunday in praising the Australian crowds, despite the harsh reception she received in her last match at Melbourne Park.
"It's amazing. Every time I come back here, I love Australia so much," she said. "It's been like this since I actually came here for the first time as a junior.
"Just enjoy playing here. I think the fans are amazing here. It's called a players-friendly grand slam for a reason, that's for sure."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
- Sports & Recreation
- Serena Williams
- Victoria Azarenka
- Melbourne Park