Azarenka primed to go all the way

Victoria Azarenka is at peace with where she is, both as a player and a person. After an injury-ravaged 2014 that left her depressed, the Belarusian has adopted a new mindset; she doesn’t think about the past or worry about the future – it’s all about living in the moment.

In 2012 Azarenka won her first grand slam, an Olympic gold medal and reached number one in the world rankings, delivering on the promise she had shown since coming through the ranks as a junior. She followed that up the next year by defending her Australian Open title and finishing as a beaten finalist at the US Open before her results trailed off.

The following year proved to be one to forget. Plagued by a foot injury she spent five months on the sidelines before calling time on her season after the US Open.

The 26-year-old speaks openly about the deep hole that she found herself in late in 2014. It was an incredibly testing time for Azarenka, but one that resulted in a big, positive change.

“Probably after US Open 2014 is something where I really realised that there is something inside me. Like I didn’t feel good about myself,” she explained.

“I have said that many times that I had a person tell me, Are you depressed? I said, No. Because you don’t allow [that] – as an athlete, you don’t really allow weaknesses to show.

“And then I realised, Yes, I am. So that was the 2014, September, October, whatever. It started a process for me to just, you know, adjust and adjust.

“It’s not easy. Obviously it took me over a year to be able to control all that. You know, I had a lot of changes and emotions from last year that I still didn’t know how to handle it. I was trying to put them in places, but I wasn’t able to control most of that.”

She added: “It’s been amazing. It changed my life. Really, it did. Starting to be happy and organised and disciplined off the court, it changed my life on the court, definitely.”

And the two-time grand slam champion admits that the on-court change nearly didn’t have a chance to happen.

“One of my best friends in Belarus, he pushed me. I called him one time, I said, I don’t want to do this anymore. He said, You have to. You’re this close. You’ve got to push through.

“I’m very lucky that I have such amazing friends and family around me.”

It’s Belarus, not just it’s people, that have shaped Azarenka too.

Speaking after their early exits from the Australian Open, Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza both pointed to extreme pressure as one of the reasons for their struggles. For Azarenka, the pressure of a grand slam is nothing in comparison to pressures she has felt earlier in her life.

“I love it. I embrace it,” she said of pressure. “I don’t know, pressure for me, I think it’s part of where I came from. I always had pressure. I had one shot to get out of where I am from, so that was way more pressure than I’m having pressure right now. So I just embrace it. I think that motivates me.”

She continued: “The first pressure is that if you don’t win some tournaments you have absolutely no opportunity to go to any other. If you’re not the best, you don’t get sponsored at all. So that was pretty rough.

“I was an ITF, I remember to this day, it still affects me every time. I was traveling for nine weeks, and in the juniors you play one or two matches a day. You can play a certain time. If you skip lunch, you don’t get to eat. I had no money. I didn’t get to eat.

“So that was pressure to survive. That was survival, really. So pressure right now is go out there and face a big opponent? Okay. But when you’re like hungry and you’ve got to go play and you have absolutely nothing, that’s big pressure.”

The pressure on Azarenka when she takes the court on Wednesday in an Australia Open quarter-final against Angelique Kerber will certainly be a very different kind of pressure. Azarenka has insisted that she had no expectations heading into the tournament and doesn’t look forward to what she could achieve. She might not do so, but others certainly have thought of her as a potential finalist since the outset of the year’s first grand slam.

With the highest seeds in the bottom half of the draw having dropped by the wayside early, the expectations on Azarenka have grown. She has never lost to Kerber and as such a spot in the semi-final against either Johanna Konta or Shuai Zhang is well within her grasp. One would certainly back her to beat Konta or Zhang in a semi. From there, it’s likely to be only Serena Williams standing in the way of her and the title.

Don’t tell Azarenka though, she’s just enjoying this moment.

“It is for me [to live in the moment] because I really enjoy that. I don’t want to think of what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow. I really want to stay present and enjoy what I do…

“…I think time goes by quick, it really flies. When I was 18 years old I was like there is no way I’m playing after 27, I will be done. I will be doing whatever. I had big plans and everything. And clearly didn’t work out so well.

“So that’s why I think my perspective comes from staying in the moment and really enjoying that.”

Watching Azarenka shine – both on and off the court – is certainly a moment that tennis fans will be happy to stay in.

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