Accident-prone Azarenka steers clear of trouble

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The Independent Online

You never know whether she will make it to the end of a match, let alone a tournament, but as the French Open enters its second week Victoria Azarenka is becoming a hotter favourite by the day. The accident-prone world No 4 came here in excellent form, having won titles in recent weeks in Miami and Marbella,and has an outstanding chance of claiming her first Grand Slam crown, especially after the defeats of Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters.

After three matches, Azarenka has yet to drop a set. The 21-year-old from Belarus brushed aside Roberta Vinci yesterday, winning6-3 6-2. Serving with purpose and attacking the Italian at every opportunity, she took command from the middle of the first set and never looked in difficulty thereafter.

"I've been improving from match to match," Azarenka said. "I'm just taking it day by day." Considering her fitness record, that is a sensible philosophy. In the past three months Azarenka has retired in the middle of three matches, most recently when she hurt her elbow playing Maria Sharapova in Rome. Over that periodPetra Kvitova, who beat Azarenka in the final in Madrid, is the only playerto have got the better of her when the match has gone the distance.

Azarenka's bad luck has extended in the past to Grand Slam tournaments. At the Australian Open two years ago she was a set up against Serena Williams when she had to quit due to heat exhaustion and a virus. At the US Open last year she collapsed against Gisela Dulko and was taken off in a wheelchair, having earlier hit her head in a fall in the gym while warming up.

The defeats of Wozniacki, Clijsters and Sam Stosur, last year's losing finalist, can only strengthen Azarenka's chances, but she refuses to look beyond her fourth-round meeting with Ekaterina Makarova. Victory over the Russian would take Azarenka into her fourth Grand Slam quarter-final, though she has never gone further.

Azarenka is seeded to meet Sharapova in the semi-finals. The 24-year-old Russian, who established her own credentials as a contender for the title here with her victory in Rome earlier this month, nearly went out to the unheralded Caroline Garcia in the last round but coasted through her latest match against Taiwan's Chan Yung-jan, winning 6-2 6-3. Sharapova now faces Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Yanina Wickmayer 6-4 6-4.

Kvitova has been another of the season's outstanding players, having won three titles already. The 21-year-old Czech, who reached the fourth round with a 6-4 6-2 victory over Vania King, her third straight-sets win in a row, now faces China's Li Na.

After finishing runner-up at the Australian Open, Li lost in the first round of her next four tournaments but has recovered her form during the clay-court season, reaching the semi-finals in Madrid and Rome. Yesterday she just needed 61 minutes to beat Romania's Sorana Cirstea 6-2 6-2.

The top half of the draw play their fourth-round matches today, with the previous two champions looking particularly threatening. Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has dropped only 11 games, plays Daniela Hantuchova, while Francesca Schiavone, who has lost only 10, faces Jelena Jankovic.