Victoria Azarenka is centered on court
It all seems so easy from the outside.
WTA world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka flashes her warm smile and disarms a crowd with her charm. Then, she takes to the court and the kindness morphs into the icy stare of a player who intends to efficiently dismantle her opponent while ignoring the world around her -- the cheers of the crowd and click-click-click of the courtside cameras that track her every move.
Things are never perfect, so I never get too high about things, or get too down about things anymore. I have learned how to better handle things as they come.Victoria Azarenka on her new approach to tennis
Azarenka has opened the 2012 WTA season with her best showing to date. She won her first Grand Slam and three other titles while putting together a 26-0 streak. She's been ranked No. 1 for the past 17 weeks, reaching the top with her Australian Open win. She's lost only three matches all season en route to $4.5 million in prize money. And she's been making history, becoming the first player from her native Belarus to win a Grand Slam and advance past No. 5 in the world.
Azarenka's recent dominance and ability to keep life in perspective reflect how much she's grown in the past few years. She came close to quitting tennis in 2011, but instead -- thanks to her family -- discovered how to handle the pressure in a healthier fashion.
Her smooth road this season has gotten a little bumpier in the past two months. She reached the finals in Stuttgart and Madrid but lost to Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, respectively, in straight sets. Azarenka's health will also be a question when she enters the French Open, which starts Sunday at Roland Garros in Paris, as the top seed. She has been out for nearly two weeks because of a right-shoulder injury. She withdrew from the second round of the Italian Open last week to rest for the French.
"Things are never perfect, so I never get too high about things, or get too down about things anymore," Azarenka, 22, told espnW in an exclusive interview in March. "I have learned how to better handle things as they come. It's more about how you approach things that makes you happy in the end. I always do my best and compete. I try to put myself in that frame of mind, because I love the game and I am so lucky to be able to do what I love."
Azarenka has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, but she did win the 2007 mixed doubles title with American Bob Bryan. If healthy, she will be viewed as one of the favorites, along with Williams and Sharapova, to challenge for the title over the next two weeks.
Rise to the top
Azarenka's newfound tennis demeanor -- staying emotionally stable and mentally fighting through issues -- is the difference-maker. The Azarenka of two years ago was labeled as talented but fragile and inconsistent.
It was never a question of talent or desire. Azarenka has always been blessed with a powerful, all-around game and she said she decided to become a tennis star shortly after she hit her first balls at the age of 7.
Belarus, a former member of the Soviet Union, has a decent tradition of producing world-class players, from former top-10 player and Hall of Famer Natasha Zvereva to current player Max Mirnyi. Azarenka looked up to both, watching their every move on TV.
But what Azarenka hadn't counted on in her own development? To become an elite international player, she would have to leave her close family. Her talent needed to be nurtured, and that meant traveling from her native Minsk.
"I dreamed about this, but I didn't think that I realized I could be this," said Azarenka, describing her rise to No. 1. "When I saw somebody who was in the top 200 [as a kid], it was amazing to me. To be 200th in the world, that seemed so big to me.
"When you're a little girl, you can dream of being No. 1, but you can never really think of what it is, and how hard it is to get there. I was missing out on a lot of things that my friends were doing, but in another way, they were missing things I was doing. It was kind of a trade-off I had to make."
At 13, Azarenka moved to Spain to train. Her mom would come for visits, but could never stay long-term. Azarenka missed her parents, grandparents and younger brother, Max. Life was going on in Minsk without her.
The next tennis-dictated move came at 15, when she went to Scottsdale, Ariz., and stayed with family friend and NHL goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and his family. They shared Belarussian heritage but that didn't totally cure Azarenka's homesickness.
"I would cry, and tell my mother I wanted to come home, why couldn't I come home?" Azarenka remembered. "We'd talk about why I was doing this, what I was meant to do here. She never said I had to stay here, but reminded me of the good things that could come if I did stay. So I stayed, and things got better."
Azarenka, blessed with a lean but powerful 6-foot frame and devastating groundstrokes, quickly established herself as a star-in-the-making by winning the 2005 Australian and U.S. Open junior titles. Her ascent up the pro ranks was just as smooth, as she was in the top 10 by 2007.
It was then that the frustration started. Azarenka, who plays with a brutal intensity punctuated by her loud, sometimes grating, shrieks, turned her focus inward. She became unglued during matches, completely frustrated. She couldn't shake off mistakes, but dwelled upon them.
It was painful to witness, and her friends, such as Russian star and frequent doubles partner Maria Kirilenko, tried to help. Kirilenko wanted Vika, as Azarenka is known, to realize her potential.
"Vika has been so good for so long, that you ask, why isn't she doing better on the court?" said Kirilenko, who has known Azarenka since she was 14. "She would train so hard, do so much, and then you do not see her win like you think. I'd always tell her to believe, be strong. I know she was trying. So what do you say after that? She had to see herself like all of us saw her. She had to learn to be stronger."
Sharapova, No. 2 in the world coming into Roland Garros, also was puzzled as to why Azarenka couldn't be more consistent. Azarenka and Sharapova now have one of tennis' hottest rivalries, with Azarenka winning four of their past six meetings. She defeated Sharapova easily in the Australian Open and Indian Wells finals this year.
"She was one of the players that has always had extreme potential to win a Grand Slam and be No. 1 in the world," Sharapova said. "I think many people actually expected that to happen sooner for her and were expecting her to even get to a final of a Grand Slam earlier than she did. But everybody has their time to achieve these things -- for her it was this year."
Azerenka's emotional rock bottom came in February 2011. After early-round losses in successive tournaments in Doha and Dubai, she was ready to leave the tour and considered applying to colleges.
She did what felt most natural: called home because she needed to hear her mother's voice. Her mom said the words that she needed the most: Come home. Now. She went to Minsk, put her tennis rackets away for a few weeks and started to think.
A long talk with her grandmother, Nina, helped Azerenka gain new perspective. Tennis is just a game, a sport with challenges, risks and rewards. But it could never define who she was as a person.
"She told me not to quit, to work hard, believe and see what will happen," Azarenka said. "Give it a year or so, and if it is not working, I can always come home. She changed the perspective of my life. My grandmother worked hard her whole life, and did not have the opportunities I have to make money, travel, do fun things. This is just tennis. Why do I complain so much about a game? She was very right. I knew it."
Azarenka's grandmother and mother did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Azarenka's agent, former WTA player Meilen Tu, said Azarenka went through a process that everyone does: She grew up.
"She's always been a strong person, but when you're on the court, and things don't happen the way you expect, you have to have a place of strength to go to get past that," Tu said. "Vika's strength comes from the support of her family and friends. She knows that no matter what happens on the court, they're going to be there for her. And that's so important."
Flipping the switch
Escaping the tour to do some soul-searching and rediscover her passion for tennis proved to be the catalyst for Azarenka's healing. She wanted to play tennis, and her childhood dream still felt very reachable. It was finally clear: Her fate rested in her own clarity. If she was able to stick to her game plan, remain calm during matches and use any negative emotions in a positive way, she could be the best.
She returned in March 2011 and won the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. She would win two more tournaments, and reach the final in two others, to close out the season ranked No. 3.
"I love the game and I am so lucky to be able to do what I love," Azarenka said. " ... I've always loved the game, and have loved the competition. You have to fight hard, it's kind of rough, you enjoy that. You're sweating, you're in pain, but you're enjoying that moment because it's something that you get to do and it's something you have worked so hard for.
"When you have tears in practice, and you know you cannot do any more, but you are still going, you get to have a smile on your face again. It's ironic, but it's exciting. It's what I do."
Azarenka came into this season primed for success, feeling she was ready to be the best. She's also found a way to maintain some semblance of normalcy in her nomadic life. She talks to her family nearly every day, either by phone or webcam. And Azarenka has had a steady boyfriend, ATP tennis player Sergei Bubka Jr., for nearly two years.
"The most important thing is family -- always," Azarenka said. "I see some people who have so much money, but they are really unhappy. But then you see somebody on the street, they look like they have pretty much nothing, and they are laughing. You can see the joy coming out of them. For me, it's not about money. It's about how close you can be to your family and enjoy life together. And I am enjoying my life. It's good."