MELBOURNE, Australia – Tradition is on the side of Victoria Azarenka, but the hot favorite to win this year's Australian Open is Serena Williams.
At least, that was the slightly uncomfortable line of questioning Azarenka faced Sunday, on the eve of the Grand Slam event she has won for the past two years.
In tennis terms, 2013 started with the spotlight on Azarenka but it ended undeniably as the year of Serena Williams who is ranked No. 1 and riding the momentum of a spectacular year.
Everyone is talking about Williams, does that bother you? — the No. 2-ranked Azarenka was asked at a pre-tournament news conference. Slightly taken aback, the defending champion found herself on the defensive.
"I don't really care about it, honestly," Azarenka replied. "It's a matter of playing tennis and giving your best on the court."
Would you agree that Serena is "the one to beat" in Melbourne — came another question.
Azarenka paused. "Well, if you meet her, yes," she smiled. Based on "her last season. Of course, everyone will be motivated to beat her."
After an upset loss in last year's Australian Open quarterfinals, Williams went into overdrive. She won 78 of her 82 matches in 2013 and collected 11 titles, including two majors. At the advanced age of 32, Williams is playing what some have described as the best tennis of her career — quite an accomplishment for a player with 17 Grand Slams titles, including five in Melbourne.
The year was less fruitful for 24-year-old Azarenka, who won two titles and was a finalist at the U.S. Open, where she lost to Williams.
The U.S Open was one of four finals Azarenka and Williams played last year. Azarenka won two of them, making her the only woman to beat Williams more than once in the season.
Williams made an early mark on 2014 by beating Azarenka at the Brisbane International final earlier this month, setting the tone for the Australian Open.
Williams called it the beginning of new rivalry in women's tennis, which is in dire need of a few more.
"I think Victoria is great," Williams said during a news conference on the weekend. "I think we have a really special thing going on right now."
The tone is a bit chillier when it comes to the other main rivalry on the women's side, involving Williams and No. 4 Maria Sharapova.
Last year, Sharapova and Williams made headlines for an off-court tiff that started over an interview Williams gave to Rolling Stone magazine before Wimbledon.
In the article, Williams was quoted mocking an unnamed top-five player and her love life, saying the player's boyfriend has "a black heart."
The author of the piece surmised that Williams was talking about Sharapova, who was and still is dating fellow pro Grigor Dimitrov, who was rumored to be one of Serena's exes.
Sharapova shot back during a news conference at the All England Club: "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids. Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that's what it should be about."
That was a blatant reference to Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Neither has publicly confirmed if their relationship extends beyond the court.
Williams apologized personally to Sharapova, but the ongoing frosty feelings were on display in Brisbane where the two met in the semifinals and made a point of crossing the net on opposite sides during game changeovers.
Williams won't get a chance to play both her rivals in Melbourne but could meet one of them in the final. She's on the opposite side of the draw from Azarenka and Sharapova who could play each other in the semifinals.
Williams, who hasn't lost a competitive match since August, starts her Australian Open campaign Monday against Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty, and has 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur and two-time Australian finalist Li Na in her half of the draw.
Asked about her chances to repeat history, Azarenka said she is "so motivated" to win. She and Novak Djokovic, the men's three-time defending champion, joked earlier in the week that meeting up for the pre-tournament photo shoot was becoming a nice tradition. The two posed for pictures with their trophies, and Djokovic quipped that having his fingerprints on it might help him to win the title for a fourth consecutive year.
"It's been fun the last two years," Azarenka said. "Hopefully, we can do it again."