Why Victoria Azarenka is so important

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Some tennis pros and fans complain about the fact that tennis is a year-round interval sport, but isn't it sweet how the calendar can be divided on an almost purely seasonal basis?

The winter quarter just ended April 1, and as Novak Djokovic & Co. fly off to spend the second spring quarter in Europe, it's a good time to take stock of what the winter wrought.

The big takeaway for me is that the WTA and ATP have engaged in a bit of role reversal. Victoria Azarenka dominated the women's field as thoroughly this year as Djokovic lorded it over the men in 2011. This is big news -- and great news for the women's tour. All it has wanted in the past few years is a more clear and credible hierarchy.

Azarenka's amazing 26-1 start was not just a great story, it also demonstrated how important it is for the tour, or the ATP for that matter, to have a dominant player or players. It seems that when a new intimidator matures, it jolts everyone else out of their complacency. That's a pretty good explanation for why the Sony Ericsson Open produced so many high-quality WTA matches.

Or, think of it this way: When was the last time a woman rolling along with the record and confidence of an Azarenka was pushed to the brink in back-to-back matches -- by women who have never won a Grand Slam title or had a sniff at the No. 1 ranking?

I'm talking about Dominika Cibulkova and Marion Bartoli, whom Azarenka met in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively. It wasn't that Azarenka was tired, or off her game in either of those matches. Both of her challengers came to play, and Bartoli ultimately accomplished her mission.

Azarenka seems to have lit a fire under her peers, and that includes the woman who would go on to win the Miami title after Azarenka was upset by Bartoli, Agnieszka Radwanska. The Polish player, who has now climbed to No. 4, has lost a match to just one player this year: Azarenka.

Coming off an artful win over No. 2 Maria Sharapova in Miami, you could argue that Radwanska is the de facto No. 2 in the WTA. She's had trouble with the very top players in the past, but this win suggests that she's earned a place among them. Life gets more complicated by the day for the old guard led by Venus and Serena Williams.

On the ATP side, Djokovic is off to a great start, but this is not a repeat of 2011 and probably will not become that any time in the near future. As he said after his win over Andy Murray in Miami on Sunday, "It's different -- different approach. I still want to fight for every title, as everybody else, have this positive mindset, not really defending or calculating how many points I can lose and things like that."

Roger Federer has a history of holding his own with Djokovic. The player who suffered the most at the hands of the reigning No. 1 last year was the man whose ranking Djokovic stripped away, Rafael Nadal.
If you noticed how often Murray won the longer rallies during the Miami final, or the extent to which David Ferrer and even Juan Monaco were able to hold their own in long points with Djokovic, you may share the feeling that Djokovic isn't quite the monster he appeared to be as recently as the Australian Open.

Of course, it may be that these Masters and sub-Grand Slam titles just don't mean as much to him anymore, but that's irrelevant. Anything that boosts his rivals' confidence, or may in any small way diminish his own, is a plus for his challengers.

That's the thing with tennis: It's always changing, like the four seasons that it emulates (the spring season ends with the French Open, and the summer -- always the best time of year -- includes two majors, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open). It leaves us with a lot to look forward to during the clay-court season.