The pair were due to face each other in Indian Wells in March, but an ankle injury forced Azarenka to default. The Belarusian’s season has been characterised as much by her withdrawals as her successes: as well as winning the Australian Open, beating Serena Williams in the Doha final and reaching the semi-finals of the French Open for the first time, she has pulled out of seven events in 2013.
After an erratic performance against Vania King in the second round in Cincinnati, in which she was fortunate to come through in two sets, Azarenka stepped up a gear in her third round match with Magdalena Rybarikova yesterday. Facing a tough opponent who has been on a roll recently, the second seed cut down on the unforced errors and played the kind of aggressive but composed tennis that took her to the top of the WTA rankings in 2012. It was far from a perfect performance – she hit seven double faults and was broken five times during the 6-3, 6-4 triumph – but Azarenka looked more like the woman who came within a game of winning the US Open last year.
Caroline Wozniacki, meanwhile, recorded her best win in months when she defeated seventh seed Petra Kvitova 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. Both players had a golden opportunity in their last 16 clash: neither has had a particularly successful season and both choked when playing Sorana Cristea in Toronto last week. But Wozniacki remained steady after being outhit in the opening set. She coaxed errors from the harder-hitting but inconsistent Kvitova, and even showed a willingness to move forward on key points. It was a messy, tiring affair, but the Dane did well to hold firm in the decider and secure a confidence-boosting victory.
Wozniacki leads her head-to-head with Azarenka 4-2, but all of those matches were played before Azarenka fulfilled her potential. In the past, Wozniacki was simply too solid and too consistent, her brilliant defensive skills frustrating Azarenka into going for too much. Since the beginning of 2012, however, the two have been on contrasting career trajectories. Whereas Wozniacki has tumbled from the top of the rankings to her current tenth and looked woefully short of confidence at times, Azarenka has become a truly elite competitor, a relentless tennis machine with a vital mental edge over the majority of her rivals.
If Wozniacki shows some of the aggression that helped her beat Kvitova while also staying error-free, she could give Azarenka a lot to think about on Center Court tonight. That said, Vika has more weapons in her arsenal and won’t be fazed if the tenth seed starts strongly. She is just as capable a defender as Wozniacki, but is more comfortable at the net and has a much more potent forehand. We can expect a lot of long, entertaining rallies in this quarter-final, but the ever-improving Azarenka will step it up at the crucial moments and take care of business in two tight sets.