By PJ Yeong
Current WTA Rank: 1
Born: Minsk, Belarus
Resides: Monte Carlo, Monaco
Best Known For: Winning the 2012 Australian Open in Singles; Winning the 2007 U.S. Open and 2008 French Open in Mixed Doubles
Career Titles: 11
Victoria Azarenka: The new It Girl on the WTA tour. Talented, pretty and with a great smile, she is the women’s player of the moment (and Ellen DeGeneres would agree). Possibly one of the best things she had done this season was to effectively end the constant criticism, tired blabbering and repeated arguments about a Slam-less women’s world #1 (for now). With Caroline Wozniacki unable to retain her ranking due to a quarter-final exit at the first Grand Slam of the year, Azarenka blasted Maria Sharapova off Rod Laver Arena during the Australian Open final, with magnificent play and superior shrieks, taking her first Slam and the world #1 ranking. Adding on her wins in Sydney International and Qatar Open, Azarenka is off to a smashing start to the season, which looks to continue.
A Little History
But of course, those who followed her career closely know well that she used to be a different Vika Azarenka. Known for being a “mental headcase” (although she claimed mostly it was because she was young and emotional), she threw tantrums on court, mentally imploded even when on the winning end, crying and berating self when losing on court, and had a reputation as a player that could not keep her cool to win comprehensively. Hence, she was tossed into that category of innately talented players, but too emotionally fragile to make anything out of their talent.
Two tough losses early last year – one to Li Na in Melbourne during the fourth round of the Australian Open, and another one to Daniela Hantuchova in the first round of Qatar Open – led her to rethink her road as a tennis player. In fact, she was close to quitting the sport because she didn’t enjoy playing anymore. Then Grandmama Azarenka came to the rescue. As Azarenka was contemplating quitting and maybe start studying instead, the wiser and older Azarenka reminded her that she has to love what she is doing for her life. Azarenka took those words to heart and it became her inspiration as she realised that she DOES love tennis. A lot. And also the fact that she is very good at it.
2011 was an up-and-down year for Azarenka; she did well to get to the last 8 and the last 4 at Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively, but exited the US Open early, losing to the ever ferocious Serena Williams. Nevertheless, she captured three titles – including a Premier Mandatory title in Miami – to end the year as #3, her highest achievement as of then.
We all know how 2012 has been so far for Azarenka. Her first title of the year came in Sydney at the Apia International, where she fought hard to beat Agnieszka Radwańska after losing the first set 6-1, and then beating defending champion Li Na in three sets. Then came her first Grand Slam title. En route to the finals, she beat Radwańska – again in three sets – the quarter-finals – after losing the first set in miserable tie-break where she failed to even win a single point. She then beat defending champion Kim Cljisters in the semi-final, also in three sets, before eliminating Sharapova in a devastating fashion. Azarenka then returned to Qatar – the scene where she contemplated giving up a mere year ago – and decisively won the title, without even losing a single set.
A Grand Slam, an additional two titles, a 17-match winning streak, world #1 ranking. All these before the month of March. The comparisons to male compatriot atop the rankings Novak Djokovic’s 2011 were palpable but Azarenka wasn’t looking that far ahead…yet. It remains to be seen, of course, as to whether she can do it, considering the women’s tour is generally perceived (and somewhat proven) to be less consistent than the men’s tour. But if she stays injury-free, mentally sound and strong, and keeps developing her game, who is to doubt her repeating Djokovic’s 2011 feat?
Personality wise, there’s just something about Vika Azarenka. Much like ice-queen Sharapova, the player she conquered in the Australian Open final, the Belarussian is fiery in her own special way, and doesn’t seem to care much about what people think about her, especially where criticisms are concerned. She defends her grunting/shrieking in a snappy and defensive manner (which, by the way, is also another never-ending debate), goes about her business playing her own brand of tennis, and wins whilst doing so. It’s a good strategy, although it may result in some conflict among her peers on tour, with good friend Radwanska recently criticising her for on-court behaviour (interestingly, during Australian Open, Radwanska said she didn’t mind Azarenka’s shrieking but was highly critical of Sharapova’s grunting). Azarenka’s response was to seemingly laugh it off with a cryptic (or perhaps not so cryptic) tweet. Ah, frenemies.
One thing is for certain, certainly no one could ever accuse Azarenka for being boring or lacking in personality. And she is definitely one of the players to watch for the rest of the year.
1) Forget Radwanska; Azarenka’s true BFF is the girl she dumped from the #1 ranking: Caroline Wozniacki. They grew up together on the junior circuit, teamed up for doubles, and do girly things like shopping and vacationing together. This video illustrated the girls’ closeness – although have things changed a la Radwanska with the recent shift of power? At the moment, not at all.
2) Azarenka counts another fellow blondish ponytail as one of her good friends…however this person plays on the ATP tour rather than the WTA. She’s great friends with Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, having known him since they were mere toddlers of 8-9 years old. She even has a nickname for him – Sanek (which for the life of me, I could not find out what that means. Google is no help.).
3) She does Belarus proud: first female world #1 and first Grand Slam singles’ winner (Countryman Max Mirnyi is an accomplished doubles’ player with 5 Grand Slams to his resume).
4) She’s dating Sergei Bubka Jr., fellow tennis player and son of famous Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka Sr.
5) Azarenka is one of the most active tennis players on Twitter – she tweets quite frequently, posts pictures, replies to fans, and currently has over 81,000 followers and counting.
What the Fans Are Saying …
Some words from Azarenka’s fans from the Twitter universe:
Karen has been following Azarenka’s career since 2007:
“From the days I used to visit TennisForum, I remembered the fans talking about this girl who was Sharapova lite, with her grunting and her temper, but then she would reach the finals of a tournament and lose even when she had match points. I was intrigued and started following her career. Even before her much heralded win over Serena in Miami, I thought she had the tools to win big titles, but I thought she lacked the forehand to finish points. However, what really made me love watching her play was her footwork – I think she moves really well, along with the likes of Serena and Federer.
Vika has improved a lot since then – her forehand, her serve and so on – but her improvement in her mental resolve has impressed me greatly, and I like her jock attitude on-court. I like that she wears shorts and sticks her tongue out and wags her finger at her opponent. I think she is ushering in a new era of femalechismo in women’s tennis and I, for one, love it.
She has shown the world that she has what it takes to win the big ones and beat top players!”
Paulina enjoys the energy Azarenka has on-court:
“I’ve been supporting her since 2009, and since then she has improved her movement on-court, and her net-game, which makes me proud. I love her reactions on-court and her attitude towards her fans. She really loves us, she’s really cute and I love her smile!”
Lisa is also fan of Azarenka’s fieriness:
“I’ve always liked her game and personality, even with the ways she can destroy herself on-court. I started to like her a lot more last year, when she matured. I became a fan during the Australian Open this year, it was oddly satisfying watching her win the title. I just really like her in-your-face attitude; not something I usually dig but it works for her.”