Vika shifts gears

November 15, 2020

What it took for Azarenka to regain her peak form

Over a decade ago, barely out of her teens, Azarenka lived for the chance to get behind the wheel of a new car she’d obtained, a red Porsche Cayenne GTS. She loved driving it over 100 m.p.h., a dangerous but thrilling passion, symbolic given that her father Fedor was, of all things, a driving instructor.

“I drive like I play tennis,” the 20-year-old Azarenka told me in a 2010 interview flavored largely by her eagerness to complete it.

But what young Vika said mattered little when compared to what she did. Starting in 2009, Azarenka finished the year ranked inside the Top 10 five straight times. That stretch included a pair of Australian Open titles, two runner-up efforts at the US Open and 51 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world.

“She was everything you wanted,” said ESPN analyst Luke Jensen in 2012. “She was a hard-working, totally professional player. She said she was too cocky. But you’ve got to be cocky.”

Azarenka kept her foot on the pedal everywhere, be it a zoom through the streets of her hometown of Minsk, a fiery practice session or, most visible of all, in match play, where Azarenka’s over-the-top grunt revealed her competitive hunger and quest to emphatically proclaim herself.”She’s an emotional tennis player,” says Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo today. “There’s a lot going on inside of her.”

Life and tennis all look differently to Azarenka now. The last seven years have repeatedly forced her off the fast lane she so savored. Injuries, motherhood, a child custody battle and demoralizing losses all turned Azarenka’s world upside down, compelled her to ponder a life without tennis and, eventually, reassess longstanding assumptions about her identity.

“When you’re coming up from kind of nothing,” said Azarenka, “then you become a No. 1 player in the world, sometimes you can start to think you’re invincible and that you’re better than everybody, and it’s not true. So the ego starts to grow. It’s very hurtful when it gets damaged.”

Oddly enough, those self-effacing comments came immediately after a grand Azarenka triumph. It was shortly past midnight at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and moments earlier, in the semifinals of the 2020 US Open, Azarenka had just defeated Serena Williams. It was the first time she’d beaten Williams at a major in 11 tries, a breakthrough earned not just because of considerable work on and off the court, but arguably fueled even more by Azarenka’s increased self-understanding.

“Instead of getting the ego damaged,” she went on, “I tried to remove that and learn from my mistakes of that ego, and realizing, maturing, that being a tennis player doesn’t make you better or worse than anybody else, that you’re still human, and all you can do is try to be the best version of yourself and keep improving.”

The win put Azarenka in the finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2013. Though she would lose in three sets to Naomi Osaka, Azarenka’s New York run, which included a title at the relocated Western & Southern Open, showed she could clearly compete with the game’s very best.

Open was very much the headspace Azarenka had entered during this year of global slowdown.

“When s*** happens to you, you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s be positive, let’s be positive’-it’s sometimes impossible to be positive,” said Azarenka. “So being neutral, just not going into a negativity is very useful.

“It’s very simple. It’s very hard to do because it’s constant work, but it’s very, very useful. I feel like I started there. Then I started to shift into a better energy.”

“She’s clearly drawing from a new filing cabinet,” says Jeff Greenwald, a sports psychologist and author of the book The Best Tennis of Your Life. “You can tell when she’s speaking that she’s getting this Zen approach of acceptance and perspective and gratitude.”

Unquestionably, motherhood has made a major impact on Azarenka.

“She was a lot spikier before,” says Carillo. “There is nothing more humbling than becoming a parent. All of a sudden this nine-pound baby is the boss.”

The custody fight she waged for her son, Leo, amplified the reality that Azarenka’s focus is no longer strictly on herself. It’s hard to imagine her driving 100 m.p.h. these days.

“She wants to be a role model for her son,” said Jensen. “You play a match and you’re changing diapers. Life looks a lot different.”

We grow, but do we change? Lest you think the feisty Azarenka has ditched fighter for lover, consider how she juxtaposes motherhood with her full-time job.

“I don’t identify myself on the tennis court as a mother,” she said in New York, upon reaching the quarterfinals of a major for the first time since Leo’s birth. “I still identify myself as a tennis player. Me being in the quarterfinals, I didn’t get there by being a parent, I got there by being a tennis player.”

The last seven years of Azarenka’s tennis have been complicated. It is one thing to witness a step-by-step erosion of skills and accompanying results. But in Azarenka’s case, there were patches of brilliance that left one thinking she was primed to continue vying for major titles. In 2015, she’d lost three compelling three-setters to Serena, including one at Roland Garros and another at Wimbledon. The next year, Azarenka captured the “Sunshine Double”-title runs at Indian Wells and Miami-the former highlighted by a win over Williams in the final. Soon after, Azarenka announced her pregnancy.

The custody battle commenced in the summer of 2017, occupying significant time and precluding travel to tournaments. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody to go through what I’ve been going through,” she said in April 2018.

For good reason, Azarenka keeps a tight lid on what comprised that personal trauma. But of course, the tennis was quite public. In the seven majors she played in 2018 and 2019, Azarenka’s record was 6-7. After losing in the first round of the 2019 US Open to fellow Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka, Azarenka went five months without touching a racquet.

Just before the pandemic, she won a scant four games versus 71st-ranked Tamara Zidansek in the first round of a WTA event in Monterrey, Mexico. When competition resumed in August, Azarenka hardly fared better, losing right away in the WTA Lexington tournament to Venus Williams, 6-3, 6-2.

Everything turned around once Azarenka headed to Flushing Meadows. At the Western & Southern Open, Azarenka won five matches-four in straights-before taking the title with a walkover win over the injured Osaka. As the US Open got underway, Azarenka’s fine form only got better. An early sign came in the second round, when she avenged that loss to Sabalenka with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-3 dismissal.

“I think confidence comes way before the result comes,” said Azarenka following that effort.

Of her six US Open wins, four came against seeds. One of those victims, 15th-seeded Elise Mertens, mustered but a single game. Her emotional excesses trimmed, Vika patrolled the court superbly, frequently smothering opponents with exemplary footwork, swift court coverage, sustained depth and an improved serve. Ranked 59th on August 21, Azarenka soared to No. 14 in the wake of three great weeks in Flushing Meadows.

“Before the global pandemic, I felt as though Azarenka’s shots didn’t have enough pace on them-without much spin, her ball had simply become too user-friendly for her opponents,” wrote Martina Navratilova on the WTA website just after the US Open. “Looking at the power of her shots in New York this past fortnight, I’m sure she used that extended break to become stronger than ever before, allowing her to hit the ball harder and push her opponents back.”

Nine years ago, one conversation changed the direction of Azarenka’s career. Feeling burnt out and uncertain if she wanted to continue as a professional tennis player, Azarenka received a strong piece of motivational advice from her grandmother, Nina.

“She told me not to quit, to work hard, believe and see what will happen,” Azarenka said in a 2012 ESPN story. “Give it a year or so, and if it is not working, I can always come home. She changed the perspective of my life.”

Regarding her 2020 resurgence, Azarenka in this case scoffed at the idea of a single moment changing everything. Instead, she views it as a long process.

“COVID has been a terrible thing,” she said, “but for me, it got me to pause and really overview a lot of things for myself. And I knew if I had to do this last comeback, I have to do things differently.

“I can’t keep going into that same circle, you know, every time. ‘Oh, you were like this in 2012, 2013.’ No, I don’t even remember how it was. So I knew I needed to find new ways to be able to progress, to be happy on the court, and to keep moving forward.”

Azarenka has learned what we all eventually learn: time will not be beaten, it will only continue. Enjoy the ride-but please drive safely. –

Vika shifts gears