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Healthy And Hungry Again : Victoria Azarenka Aims To Return To Tennis's Ruling Class....

Posted by Jeevan ॐ Mirthu Gupt on January 10, 2015 at 7:10 AM

Victoria Azarenka, in the studio of a Los Angeles artist doing her portrait....

LOS ANGELES — It was almost 2015, and Victoria Azarenka was parked in her sleek sport utility vehicle on a Beverly Hills street with the rain drumming on the windshield as she spoke about how it felt to no longer be above the rest, to be ranked No. 31 instead of No. 1.


“It’s just a number,” she said slowly and quietly. “If I thought that, hey, No. 31 is how I feel and this is me, there would be a problem. But that’s not it. I know what I’m capable of. And I don’t need to say it. I just need to do what I want to do.”

What Azarenka wants to do is return to tennis’s ruling class, where she was firmly entrenched in 2012 and 2013, winning consecutive Australian Opens. She scrapped and shrieked to the top of the pyramid, and she demonstrated the rare ability to walk on court against Serena Williams with her chin up and her shoulders back, clearly believing that she could prevail.


After the two met for their second-straight three-set United States Open final in 2013, Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said, “Serena and Victoria Azarenka, they are above the rest.”

But Azarenka, 25, also wants to return to the circuit with a more frank and true-to-herself attitude after a season foiled by injuries and the painful end of her romance with the singer Stefan Gordy, better known as Redfoo.


“I did get my heart broken; I really did,” she said. “I’m over it, but it was broken. And I’m not afraid to admit that it was, but it’s life.”

She said she cried a lot last year, but she sounded as if she has gleaned a lot on her way to a brighter place: making new connections and deepening others, spending Thanksgiving in November with the big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, his wife, the star volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, and their daughters on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.


Azarenka played only 24 matches in 2014 primarily because of foot and knee injuries, missing most of the first six months of the season. She reached just one final and ended her season after losing in the second round in Tokyo in September.


If she does not have another good run at her season-opening tournament this week in Brisbane, Australia, where she reached the final last year, she risks not being seeded at the Australian Open. But as her latest unwanted break from the game comes to an end after three and a half months, her coach, Sam Sumyk, says she is finally pain free.


“I think her motivation is pretty good, but I don’t want to get too excited or say too much,” Sumyk said. “Because at the same time last year, I thought 2014 would be a great year for her. All the lights were green. And look what happened.”


What happened in the first month of the season was a painful inflammation in her left foot. Sumyk said she later developed plantar fasciitis in the same foot, followed by tendinitis and a knee problem.


“I pushed, and I pushed last year, which was not smart,” Azarenka said. “Because it was rushed decisions and part of it was I didn’t trust my own intuition sometimes.”

Azarenka was often prepared to second-guess herself during a several-hour interview conducted in her car, at a raw-food restaurant she chose in West Hollywood, and in the downtown studio of James Haunt, a pop artist she met via Instagram who is working on her portrait. But on balance her mood was much more upbeat than regretful. She was open, curious, occasionally profane and often reflective, picking her words carefully and proving much more willing to linger over sensitive topics than in previous encounters.

“I think the toughest part is to admit that you weren’t O.K.,” she said of 2014. “Somebody asked me at one stage, ‘Are you depressed?’ And I said: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not depressed.’ But you know what? I was. I was, but I just didn’t realize it, because all these things happen, and you just don’t know how to deal with emotions.”

Reeling and searching for an outlet, she started to paint last May and began to cry in one of her first sessions. She said she put down the brush and smeared paint on the canvas with her hands.

“Just doing weird stuff; I didn’t know what I was doing,” Azarenka said. “I was upset, and I was lazy, and I just wiped my hands on my shirt, just everything on my shirt, on my pants. And I woke up the next day and had a meeting in this restaurant with Nike people, and I didn’t feel like dressing up. I just put on that shirt and those pants, and I come into the restaurant. And the Nike people, they’re like: ‘Oh my God, that’s a cool shirt. Where did you buy it?’ ”

Learning to Speak Out

Azarenka was born in July 1989 in Minsk in Belarus shortly before it declared its independence from the Soviet Union. From a close family of modest means — she said eight people shared a small apartment — she left home in her early teens to train briefly in Spain and then extensively in the United States, where she lived in Arizona with the Russian hockey star Nikolai Khabibulin and his family.


It has taken Azarenka time to embrace the open approach to communication that often prevails in the West.

“I had to learn all this stuff, because it doesn’t come naturally,” Azarenka said. “With somebody from a pretty closed country, you don’t get it. You don’t get that you need to speak out and how to express your feelings.”

Her parents and extended family remain in Belarus, where they are building a new house bought with her winnings. Azarenka remains a resident of Monaco but is finishing work on a residence in Manhattan Beach, Calif., an affluent Los Angeles suburb where her coach, Sumyk, and her agent, Meilen Tu, who are married, live a Frisbee throw from the ocean, and where Maria Sharapova has long had a home.


Sumyk, a 46-year-old Frenchman from coastal Brittany, loves the ocean, works out regularly with Hamilton up the coast in Malibu and likes to mine non-tennis influences to enrich his coaching. He has consulted Maurice Greene, the former Olympic sprint champion, and Olivier de Kersauson, a leading French sailor. Sumyk introduced Azarenka to Hamilton, whom she calls “one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.”

Azarenka described Sumyk as her life teacher, not just her coach, and she is adamant that there is too big a gap between her image and reality.

Public perception of Azarenka has been shaped by a number of factors. Among them: her relentless shrieking during rallies; her combative and once much more tempestuous demeanor on court, and her occasional prickliness and defensiveness in interviews.

“Deep down inside, I know I’m a very good person,” she said. “I’m a sensitive person. I have a kind heart, you know, but I’m a fighter on the court and a competitor in life, so just to understand that and accept that can sometimes be really difficult.”


Sumyk said, “We could play cards right now, and she just wants to kill you.”

He turned to Tu and added, “Both of you are going to make lasagna, and she’s going to want to make the better lasagna than you.”

Azarenka attributed this in part to genetics and in part to conditioning, pointing to her early tennis days in Minsk.

“I started with 40 kids in the hall where you are just hitting against the wall, and if you miss the ball you wait for five minutes to hit another one, so you better make it,” she said. “My first year I didn’t even see the tennis court. My second year, we were on the court three times a week with 25 kids for one hour. That’s all. The rest is me going and hitting against the wall and imagining myself playing on the big arenas.

“When I see these kids 6 years old with a private coach and at 7 they have a fitness coach, I’m like, ‘Aw, come on.’ At 12, it’s for sure they will lose all the interest in tennis because they do not interact with other kids.”

Her reputation has also been shaped by her lengthy injury timeout in her 2013 Australian Open semifinal victory over Sloane Stephens. The timeout drew accusations of gamesmanship, although Azarenka insisted that she was truly hurting, unable to breathe properly because of a rib problem that was causing her back to seize up. She did not help her cause with her postmatch assertion that she “almost did the choke of the year.”


Bring that match up, even in passing, and Azarenka is quick to wince, still quick to deny any intent to cheat but also newly critical of her communication strategy, saying she should have addressed the topic once and left it there instead of giving dozens of interviews in an attempt to control the damage.


“It maybe looked over-rehearsed when you do it 40 times,” she said.

She said that she might have been treated differently if she had been American or Australian, and expressed particular irritation with some commentators suggesting the Stephens affair had not troubled her before the final against Li Na.

“They have no idea what I went through those two days,” she said, her voice never rising. “They had no idea how much I cried those two days. They had no idea that Sam came to me in my room and he brought me wine and said, ‘Vika, I think you may need some wine because you are stressed out.’ ”

She went on to win the title, which Sumyk considers her most impressive performance in light of the circumstances, but which did not succeed in endearing her to the Australian Open masses, who greeted her with ambivalence in her return last year.

A Matter of Motivation


What might happen next remains a mystery, particularly after a season when Williams remained No. 1, but when new talent like Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep rose to considerable heights and Azarenka’s longtime friend Caroline Wozniacki resumed being a big factor after her breakup with the golfer Rory McIlroy.

“I think it’s great,” Azarenka said of Wozniacki’s resurgence. “Because we were both in Monaco when her situation happened and everything with me happened, and we were just having dinner and crying on each other’s shoulders.”


The women’s game has its share of nightmarish injury tales. Dinara Safina, a Russian once ranked No. 1, had her career cut short by chronic back problems.


But there are also more heartening comeback stories, including those of Williams and Rafael Nadal, both of whom returned to No. 1 after significant layoffs because of injuries or ailments.


Azarenka remains 3-14 against Williams, but she beat her twice in 2013, and their duels in the United States Open finals in 2012 and 2013 — both won by Williams — were two of the most intense and magnetic women’s matches of late. But Azarenka, who looked ready to finally rival Williams, has yet to regain her momentum since the 2013 Open defeat.


“I do think Vika can become No. 1 again and win Grand Slams,” said Antonio van Grichen, who coached Azarenka for five years before Sumyk took over in 2010. “She has the tools, and if she’s healthy, at the end of the day it only comes down to motivation. If it’s there for her, she will be there again.”


Azarenka insisted that her trademark fire had not dimmed, saying, “Honestly, I’ve never been that motivated in my life before as I am now.”


That might be tough to believe, given that she started as a hopeful among many in Minsk; given how many outside plans, projects and paintings she is mulling; and given how mellow she sounded and how comfortable she looked as she tackled big subjects while navigating the freeways and back streets of Los Angeles with the smartphone balanced on her knee providing GPS assistance.

“I always think about how far I have come,” she said, eyes on the road. “It’s a dream. But I never take it for granted.”

By : Christopher Clarey

Categories: SPORTS, Tennis , STORIES

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