This was one time Serena Williams didn't mind being pushed into the deep end, to use her own description.
The top-ranked Williams carried her winning momentum from 2013 into the new season, beating No. 2-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 7-5 on Saturday to defend her title at the Brisbane International and set the tone for the Australian Open.
She extended her winning streak to 22 matches with the emphatic win over the reigning Australian Open champion, making it back-to-back victories over two of her main rivals. She beat four-time major winner Maria Sharapova in straight sets in an intense semifinal, her 14th consecutive win in that frosty duel.
She improved to 14-3 against Azarenka, the last person to beat her last year. Before the semifinals, Williams said there was nothing like being "thrown into the deep end straight away."
Having come through those challenges, she thought it was the ideal season-opening tournament.
"It was a great test. It showed me where my level was," Williams said, looking ahead to the Australian Open. "I'm happy I was able to play both Maria and Victoria, because they brought their A games against me. I know now what I need to do for Melbourne — I look forward to it."
The year's first major starts Jan. 13 at Melbourne Park and Williams, who won 78 of her 82 matches and collected 11 titles last year, is positioning herself as the favourite to claim a sixth Australian title after winning a tournament featuring six of the top 10 women.
Williams has so many trophies now, she said she doesn't know where they all are — "some are MIA" — but that doesn't stop her from collecting more. This was her 58th, including 17 majors.
Immediately after the loss, Azarenka said she hopes to face Williams again in Melbourne — as the top two ranked players, they can only meet in the final.
"I can't say I'm satisfied today, but I want to take the positive, what I've done today, and build from here towards the next week," Azarenka said. "This is the first week where you really test yourself where your game is at, and from here you can take the positives and the things that you have to work on and really go after that."
Williams earned the first break in the seventh game and hit fired consecutive aces to finish off the first set in 37 minutes.
She went up a break immediately in the second set before Azarenka won four straight games to take a 4-2 lead. Williams, who was comparatively silent against a screeching opponent for the second straight night, let out a scream of relief and satisfaction after hitting an overhead winner to break back in the seventh game.
Serving for the championship
And she yelled and pumped her arm again after converting a break in the 11th game with a backhand down line.
Serving for the championship, Williams started with two aces — her 10th and 11th — and then hit a service winner to set up two championship points at 40-15. She fired an unreturnable serve to finish it off.
The Williams sisters were hoping to both win a WTA Tour event in the same week for the first time in 15 years, but Ana Ivanovic prevented that when she beat Venus Williams 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in the final of the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand.
It was the end of a personal drought for second-seeded Ivanovic, who claimed her 12th career singles title and her first since Bali in 2011.
Venus Williams was the crowd's sentimental favourite after reaching the final of her first tournament since September. After a long struggle with injury and illness, her form in Auckland supported her claim that she is fitter and healthier than she has been in years.
The men's final in Brisbane on Sunday will feature two 32-year-old former No. 1s.
Top-seeded Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt earned three-set semifinal victories to advance, renewing a rivalry that stretches back to the last millennium.
Federer beat No. 8-seeded Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3 immediately after Hewitt's 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 win over second-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan in sweltering heat topping 40 Celsius (104 F).
The pair have met 26 times dating back to 1999, with Federer leading 18-8 including 16 of the last 17.