MELBOURNE: Newly crowned Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka believes women's tennis is in for a fascinating 12 months as a new generation challenges the supremacy of the established stars.
Azarenka's 6-3, 6-0 win over three-time grand slam winner Maria Sharapova was the 22-year-old's first triumph at a major championship, and will also put her the top of the next women's rankings list released on Monday.
The Belarusian was the fifth different women's grand slam winner in a row, and the fourth first-time champion in succession, following Li Na at Roland Garros, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon and Samantha Stosur at the US Open.
“I think it's a great thing for women's tennis,” Azarenka said. “We have a good rivalry, I would say.
“With Petra we had amazing matches. Unfortunately I haven't beaten her, but I'm really looking forward to that.
“But with Maria playing really well now, you know, Serena (Williams) is back, Kim (Clijsters), I think it's great for women's tennis.
“With Li Na winning a grand slam, Sam Stosur winning a grand slam, I think it's a great competition and we can really look forward for the women's game.
“It's at a great level right now.”
The 21-year-old Kvitova went into the tournament as one of the favourites but was beaten in the semi-finals by Sharapova, who agreed there were exciting times ahead.
“In terms of what the tour has to offer, I hope that we have a lot of great tennis, and personally, I hope I do, too,” said the Russian.
While the changes are positive for the up-and-coming players, the Australian Open may have seen the beginning of the end for a number of grand slam winners.
Williams, 30, who is virtually a part-time player due to injuries and a lack of motivation, was soundly beaten in the fourth round by unheralded Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
The American, a 13-time grand slam winner, didn't play after last year's US Open, later admitting she had fallen out of love with tennis.
She came into the tournament underdone after injuring her ankle in Brisbane and despite cruising through her first three matches, she had no answer to 56th-ranked Makarova, who had not been past a first round since August.
Clijsters, 28, has already indicated this is her last year on the tour and she looked capable of defending her title after outplaying now-deposed number one Caroline Wozniacki, before she ran into Azarenka in the semi-finals.
Clijsters had also come back from four match points down in her thrilling fourth-round clash against Li, but was unable to repeat the feat against the eventual champion.
Stosur crumbled under the pressure of home expectations when she lost to little-known Romanian Sorana Cirstea in the first round, while two-time grand slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, 26, lost her fourth round match to 22-year-old German Sabine Lisicki.
But there were promising signs for former French Open winner and ex-world number one Ana Ivanovic, who will return to the top 20 after reaching the fourth round, and for Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, who will rise to six.