Victoria Azarenka again prevails under pressure
NEW YORK -- Victoria Azarenka could feel how big the moment had become. As wet winds picked up within Arthur Ashe Stadium, she could hear the crowd cheering on defending champion Samantha Stosur as she smashed an overhead to tie a third-set tiebreak at 5. A lot of pressure for the No. 1 seed, but pressure is one of the things we are learning Azarenka does best.
After that point, she told herself, "Don't be a chicken."
The motivational speech was short and unconventional, but heck if it didn't work.
After fighting for every point, Azarenka won the next two relatively quickly for a 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5) quarterfinal win against Stosur, the first time in five years a women's match had gone the distance this deep into the U.S. Open. It was 2 hours and 23 minutes of finely polished tennis. Azarenka's power was on display, with Stosur throwing in some heavy topspin and slow shots that sailed flatly just over the net.
"You know, I enjoy that struggle, that pain that we go through," Azarenka said. "That incredible moment that you feel relieved after, you know you gave it all in every point you had."
Stosur and Azarenka said the match brought out their best tennis, something easier to see in retrospect.
"I knew we were playing a good match," Stosur said. "It was exciting and there was momentum here, momentum there. We were hitting winners and running all over the court, so I knew that was going on. Again, you can feel that, but you don't sit down at change of ends and say, 'Oh, gee, this is fun,' or anything. They're the most enjoyable, but not necessarily at the moment."
Azarenka is also not afraid of taking risks. It shouldn't be much of a surprise for a 23-year-old who has an affinity for fast cars like Ferraris and Aston Martins -- they have control and speed, both of which require being able to master the emotions of the moment. Chickens need not apply.
"I don't know if anyone likes those situations, but I think what she likes is challenging herself," Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk, said. "And I think she likes to be in that position of being challenged."
Sumyk knew three years ago when he said yes to working with Azarenka that she had potential. She had size and power, but he wondered if she would burn quickly through her resolve like other players had. But, with Azarenka, he discovered a woman with big ambitions and the patience for the daily grind required in reaching them.
"I feel like [sometimes] I will never be satisfied," said Azarenka, who improved to 11-0 in three-set matches this year. "That even though I'm at the peak of my career right now, I feel like I want to do better, I want to do better. The ambitions are really high, but I don't like to jump ahead too much. That's what I felt kind of was holding me back before, is to have that image that I want it so bad that I'm going to go for it. I just try to execute being a good player, improve myself as a player, my physical aspect, and the result is second for me right now."
Rain wreaked havoc on the schedule. With Azarenka up 3-0 in the first set, the match was delayed as a storm moved through the area. In the semifinal, Azarenka will meet either Maria Sharapova or Marion Bartoli, whose match was postponed until Wednesday.
After winning, Azarenka brought some sunshine of her own, thanking Stosur and dancing to T.I.'s "Live Your Life" as she served tennis balls to the upper decks of the stadium.
When she came back inside, she sought out Sumyk and they conferred in the halls underneath the stadium.
"I think she just wants to hear me showing her that I'm proud of her," Sumyk said. "We all look for that, I guess. When you [achieve] a big performance against the defending champion, [she wants me to say] only positive things because, obviously, I am a coach -- I say only negative things."
He was joking, because he has been pleased with her on-court development. She beat Sharapova to win the Australian Open and attained the No. 1 world ranking. She later reached the fourth round at the French Open, the semifinals at Wimbledon and won bronze at the London Olympics. The hard courts, however, might be where she feels most at home.
"I'm really looking forward to play the tough battles I still have in the tournament," Azarenka said. "You know, for being first time in the semifinals in the U.S. Open is an incredible feeling for me. Definitely, I don't want to stop. I really want [the title] bad. I'm going to do absolutely everything I have to give it all here."