“You know what? I just want to play the way that the crowd start to love me.” – Victoria Azarenka
In order to entice observers, sports needs its heros and villains. Most of the time, these labels are handed out in an arbitrary fashion, when the truth about an athlete almost always lies somewhere in the middle.
In women’s tennis, there’s the ever-popular Serena Williams, who enjoys broad support as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. There’s Maria Sharapova, a beloved mainstay whose fightback after shoulder surgery proved her professionalism and commitment to the game. There’s Agnieszka Radwanska, voted a WTA fan favorite for her crafty game and fun personality off the court.
And then there’s Victoria Azarenka.
Plenty of tennis players approach their media obligations with reluctance. Azarenka is one of them. Here are some of the best excerpts from her pressers from the last couple years:
Q. How did you get from Luxembourg to Istanbul that fast?
VICTORIA AZARENKA: Plane. You know, there is this nice machine that has two wings and flies much faster.
Q. So? Which person you are?
VICTORIA AZARENKA: That’s a weird question that I cannot answer. I’m sorry.
Q. But what if an opponent made a complain [about grunting], which they are within their rights to do? Then what would be your attitude to that?
VICTORIA AZARENKA: I would just say, Mind your own business, I guess. I hope you can beat me. That’s it.
Q. At 4-Love, who started doing things differently, Serena or yourself?
VICTORIA AZARENKA: Have you watched the match?
Q. Have you spoken to Caroline, your good friend? You’re both at opposite ends of the draw. I presume you have the same agent or representation. You went out for dinner I think the other night. Do you liaise on that level?
VICTORIA AZARENKA: You know quite a lot about me and her, you know. I might think of you as a stalker a little bit.
Azarenka’s reputation for being short with the press might be deserved, but she speaks insightfully about her matches when reporters stay on topic.
She’s not so different from Andy Roddick. Like her, he was funny and smart with the press, but brutal to reporters who dared ask him a daft question. But Azarenka doesn’t enjoy the same praise that Roddick received for his approach.
So why is Azarenka so unpopular with many casual tennis fans?
Maybe it’s the sarcastic sense of humor, but most tennis fans don’t read presser transcripts. Maybe it’s the grunt, but Sharapova is guilty of the same offense without nearly as much blowback.
Or maybe what makes her unpopular with the average fan is the very thing that Azarenka’s hardcore fans like about her the most: she really doesn’t care what you think of her.
When the 2012 tennis season began, Azarenka was ranked third in the world. The tennis community was mainly focused on 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who had just triumphed over Azarenka in three sets in the WTA Championships final to end the year ranked No. 2. The media-driven obsession with ending Caroline Wozniacki’s Slam-less reign at No. 1 was boiling over. The pressure was on Kvitova to prove herself to be the dominant player in the world.
Azarenka, though possessing a potent game, also possessed a reputation for losing her cool in adversity. With her big shotmaking, she was certainly part of the discussion on those who could win a major title as the season opened. She started her 2012 out with a convincing title win in Sydney, beating three top 10 players, Marion Bartoli, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Li Na, along the way.
In Melbourne, Azarenka unapologetically rocked a Nike shorts ensemble, raising some eyebrows among some of tennis’ dinosaurs (Surprising, since it’s 2012).
Azarenka triumphed in such dominating and rapid fashion over Heather Watson in her opening match that nobody appears to have captured highlights on YouTube. She won, 6-1, 6-0, over her up-and-comer opponent.
Casey Dellacqua, a young Aussie, stood next in the path of the Azarenka tornado. She was demolished with the same scoreline as Watson, 6-1, 6-0. Azarenka won 12 straight games after Dellacqua held once to start the match.
Azarenka started strong against her next opponent, Mona Barthel. Barthel, a trickier opponent than Azarenka’s last two, forced the Belorussian to show off her variety.
Barthel, with the help of her big serve, made things marginally interesting and managed three games in the second set against the World No. 3, but she was heavily outmatched.
Angered by running out of challenges and not being able to challenge what she thought was a poor line call on a match point, Azarenka celebrated her match win with unabashed vitriol. Naturally, the Aussie crowd, already strongly supporting her opponents, did not take kindly to it. A shower of boos and whistles rained down. Azarenka cared not one bit.
The lefty veteran Iveta Benesova fared no better against Azarenka. In perhaps her best match in Melbourne so far, Azarenka thoroughly dismantled the then-World No. 46. Azarenka won 47% of Benesova’s service points, saved the only two break points she faced, and broke the Czech four times.
It was against her (then-)friend Agnieszka Radwanska that Azarenka finally dropped her first set of the tournament. It was a strange set. Azarenka seemingly held the upper hand through most of it, breaking several times. But each time she did so, she got broken back. She even served for the set at 6-5, but got broken and subsequently mini-bageled by Radwanska in the tiebreak.
Azarenka had a bagel of her own to dispense, and she did so in the next set. Aided by Radwanska’s sudden passivity, Azarenka rattled off 12 of the next 14 games to win the match. She suffocated Radwanska’s game with her lethal return of serve:
Facing Kim Clijsters, Azarenka pulled more shots from her arsenal. She surprised Clijsters with a well-disguised drop shot winner.
In winning a comfortable 6-4 first set, Azarenka showcased her outstanding anticipation.
The woman known as “Aussie Kim” wouldn’t fade away that easily. Her back against the wall, Clijsters caught fire. She produced an outstanding lob winner on an Azarenka shot that should have been put away.
The tables were turned on Azarenka as Clijsters came up with one punishing shot after another. In just 36 minutes, Clijsters had managed to force a third set.
In the deciding set, the switch was flipped again. Clijsters bowed out with relatively little drama against the fitter Azarenka. Her long absence from competitive tennis showed as she lost steam.
There would be no angry celebration from Azarenka this time. After Clijsters sailed a backhand wide, Azarenka collapsed to the ground, delighted to have reached the first Grand Slam final of her career.
Maria Sharapova came out blazing hot. She won nine of the first 13 points of the match for a 2-0 lead.
From there, it was all steep downhill for the Russian. After dropping the first two games, Azarenka broke back and held for 3-2. As Sharapova struck an ace to hold for 3-all, she couldn’t possibly have known that would be the last game she’d win for the rest of the match. But it was.
Once Azarenka shook off whatever nerves she had coming out of the gates, she was in absolute control of the match.
As Azarenka continued to dismantle Sharapova, the crowd began to cheer a little louder for her. Sure, she wasn’t going to get a Federer-like ovation, but the Aussie crowd became aware that the kind of the tennis being produced by the Belorussian was something special.
If it seemed like the match was over in a flash, that’s because it was. It was the very definition of an uneventful match, because Sharapova simply couldn’t keep up with her opponent. Before she knew it, Azarenka had won her first Grand Slam, beating Sharapova 6-3, 6-0. It doesn’t get much more emphatic than that.
There’s no fairy tale ending to this story. Crowds will still cheer against Azarenka and imitate her grunt to try and distract her during matches. She will still snipe at reporters who ask her something that gets under her skin. She’ll continue to ignore any criticism she receives for any of those things, because Vika doesn’t care what you think.
But at least for one small moment in time, Azarenka was loved by the crowd because of the tennis she played. That’s all she really wanted in the first place.