By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka will carry her world number one ranking with pride in the defense of her Australian Open title, but knows she faces a grim task preventing Serena Williams seizing both.
Williams, red-hot over the past six months, won the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul and promptly took a dig at the Belarusian, declaring herself the true number one.
Azarenka lost all of her five matches against the intimidating American last year, including a hard-fought U.S. Open final.
She raised eyebrows by pulling out of their semi-final clash at the Brisbane International last week, blaming an infected toe from a bad pedicure.
The 23-year-old Azarenka has since steered clear of beauty treatments but could find Williams harder to avoid at Melbourne Park, where the two would also face off in the last four.
Seeded third despite holding the Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympic singles titles, Williams could replace Azarenka as world number one with a sixth Australian Open crown.
Azarenka agreed that the American loomed as the greatest threat in the women's draw.
"Yeah, I think so," she told reporters on Saturday. "You know, everybody tries to beat the top players. Every time I go on the court, you feel the same way.
"Everybody wants to take your position, be the number one player in the world. When I wasn't number one I was feeling the same way. You get more excited.
"The job gets tougher for us, but also it's more exciting this way."
Azarenka's maiden and only grand slam triumph last year briefly ended an uncomfortable period for women's tennis as she took the top ranking from Caroline Wozniacki.
The Dane had been world number one for more than a year despite failing to win one of the four major titles.
Although Williams's dominance has re-opened the debate, Azarenka said her top ranking was reward for a consistent season in which she scooped six titles.
Her thrashing of Maria Sharapova in last year's Melbourne final also gave her a massive boost of confidence.
"To maintain the (number one) level is probably harder than it is to get there because you have to be consistent," said Azarenka, who faces a first-round match against 54th-ranked Monica Niculescu of Romania.
"It's really difficult to maintain the same form throughout the years. You're always going to have some up and downs.
"But I felt really good that I stayed pretty much consistent throughout the whole year. That's what kept me with the ranking. I always try to improve my game, improve as a player.
"Results come always first for me," Azarenka added. Trophies and the ranking is something that follows up that.
"That's not my main focus, what the ranking is. But it's definitely not something you're going to complain about."
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)