Neither hero nor villain — simply human


4 years in the past — after shedding within the first spherical of the Australian Open, the scene of her best triumphs — a despondent Victoria Azarenka vowed to combat her manner out of a career-threatening droop and recapture the shape that earned her two Grand Slam singles titles in Melbourne.

She wiped away tears as she contemplated the problem, following a number of years disrupted by harm, a break for the start of son Leo in 2016 and a messy custody battle.

“It’s not easy to be positive but I don’t have a choice,” mentioned Azarenka, who was then ranked simply outdoors the highest 50, having sunk as little as No. 208 two years earlier, in 2017. 

She mentioned she maintained a burning ambition to rejoin the sport’s elite and believed exhausting work was the one option to get there. “[This result is] not going to stop me. No matter how much it hurts, I have to learn from it. I’ve never really learned how to struggle before, so it’s a lesson.”

Roaring once more: Azarenka rolled again the years in Melbourne final month, getting into the final 4 of the Australian Open and looking out each inch the participant who had received the event ten years in the past.

The Belarusian has embraced the wrestle, studying to make peace together with her imperfections. And whereas she hasn’t tasted Grand Slam success once more, the 33-year-old is in a much better place than she was in the course of the darkish days that adopted her ascent to the highest. 

Hitting a rut

After a affluent run of 10 Main tournaments between 2011 and 2013 — she received two Grand Slam crowns, completed runner-up twice, made the semifinals on three different events and acquired to World No. 1 — Azarenka hit a rut, by way of outcomes. Troubled by a foot harm amongst different niggles and coping with private challenges off the court docket, she missed eight of the subsequent 25 Main occasions and didn’t make it previous the quarterfinals when she did compete. 

The tennis she produced on the 2020 US Open — she made a stirring run to the ultimate — was the primary indication that she was working issues out. Nevertheless it took two extra seasons of mediocre outcomes on the Slams earlier than she rolled again the years in Melbourne final month, getting into the final 4.

Though she misplaced to Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, Azarenka beat 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, tenth seed Madison Keys and in-form third seed Jessica Pegula in a robust marketing campaign. She regarded each inch the participant who had received back-to-back in 2012 and 2013, able to each dominating a rally and counter-punching.

She additionally demonstrated her bodily and psychological resilience in a bruising late-night encounter in opposition to China’s Zhu Lin, which she described as “two hours and 40 minutes of complete pressure”.

Azarenka made vital rating features due to her efficiency, shifting up eight locations to sixteenth. She will likely be simply as happy together with her consistency over a Grand Slam fortnight: it recommended that making the ultimate in New York in 2020 wasn’t a one-off; her peak years could also be behind her, however there isn’t any purpose why she will’t harbour goals of tasting Main success once more.

Finding a way: Azarenka said changing her mindset and conquering her anxiety had helped her both on and off the court.

Discovering a manner: Azarenka mentioned altering her mindset and conquering her anxiousness had helped her each on and off the court docket.

Azarenka mentioned altering her mindset and conquering her anxiousness had paved the way in which for her return to the semifinals of the Australian Open. 

“I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything I felt good about myself, not even one sentence,” she mentioned. “From then, I tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative. Accepting the anxiety that I have. Accepting the fear that I have. Working through it, step by step.”

A greater understanding

Azarenka was requested if going by way of the method of coping with her anxiousness helped her perceive her issues in 2013 when she needed to fend off accusations of gamesmanship after her semifinal win over Sloane Stephens at Melbourne Park. The Belarusian had taken an almost-10 minute medical timeout after blowing 5 match-points and denied the cost following her win, saying she wanted therapy for a rib harm that had affected her respiration.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through in my professional career,” Azarenka mentioned. “The way I was treated, the way I had to explain myself until 10:30 p.m. because people didn’t want to believe me. There’s sometimes an incredible desire for a villain and a hero story that has to be written. But we’re not villains, we’re not heroes, we’re regular human beings that go through so many things. It took me 10 years to get over it. I’m finally over that.”

Azarenka additionally spoke in Melbourne about how her skilled and private lives are related. “I don’t think that one goes without the other. I feel like a tennis court — probably for everybody, but for me, especially — triggers a lot of those fears, a lot of anxiety. It’s kind of like an open canvas. At a high-pressure moment, weird emotions come on the court.”

The Belarusian mentioned she now has a course of to manage when the nerves rear up. Nevertheless it nonetheless is a piece in progress; the important thing, she mentioned, was to not change into a prisoner of her previous.

“It’s really difficult to be brave and make the right choices in important moments when you feel anxious and hesitant,” Azarenka mentioned after her quarterfinal win. “When you achieve great success, sometimes you become conservative and hesitant to try new things. I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll be open-minded, try new things, keep my head down and work.’”

Now 33 and a self-described “obnoxious soccer mom” bidding to change into solely the fourth lady to win a Grand Slam singles title within the Open period after having kids, Azarenka isn’t wanting too far forward. Her focus is on the current and her son Leo.

“Leo doesn’t really care so much that I’m playing,” she mentioned. “He worries more about his football. He watches some matches, but he definitely wants his mom to be home. I’m towards the end of my career and I cannot say being focused on the result hasn’t worked for me. But it also played big tricks for me mentally after you haven’t achieved your expectations 

“[That is] kind of a hard hole to recover from. I’m taking baby steps and really working on my intentions and what I want to do. I just didn’t want to judge ‘Can I do it?’ or ‘Can I not do it?’ I just try to see what happens. That is a pretty big win for me.”

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