Azarenka on a mission

 - Reem Abulleil

Victoria Azarenka has battled tough times and come out stronger on the other side. Here's how.

Victoria Azarenka Roland GarrosVictoria Azarenka © Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

When you’ve been No.1 in the world and have won Grand Slams in the past, it must be difficult to accept anything less than that kind of success on the tennis court.  

Victoria Azarenka would be the first one to acknowledge that, but she is also not interested in looking back, as she continues to plot her return to the top of the sport, two and a half years on from having her first child Leo.

Since she came back from maternity leave mid-2017, the Belarusian star has had her fair share of both on-court and off-court struggles.

She’s been bold enough to show her true self in her most vulnerable moments, with her most recent Grand Slam appearance, in Australia last January, ending in a tearful press conference in which she bared her soul to the assembled reporters in Melbourne.

“I've been through a lot of things in my life. Sometimes I wonder why I go through them,” an emotional Azarenka said after her first-round exit there.

“I think they're going to make me stronger. I want to believe that and I'm going to work hard for it.”

Three months later, Azarenka reached her first final since 2016, in Monterrey, and she comes to Roland-Garros in a much happier place than where she was at Melbourne earlier this year.

The 29-year-old says she’s found the joy once again in the journey, after putting in a lot of work mentally to move past that low point in Australia.

Re-gaining ground

“There were a lot more vulnerable moments than that,” Azarenka told of that tearful press conference in Melbourne.

“It was just the point where it’s either you take everything into your own hands and you drive through those adversities and challenges, or you give up. I’m not the type of person that will ever give up, so it was a good opportunity to assess, and I’m very proud of myself that I took everything in my own hands and try to work hard and I still am doing it every single day.

“It’s been the most hard but most exciting part of my life and I finally understood what the journey is, how to enjoy the tough parts. It’s been fun, it’s really making me wake up in the morning saying ‘okay, let’s go’.”

At No.44 in the world, Azarenka is enjoying her highest ranking since March 2017. This week she’s also fresh off of a doubles title victory alongside Ashleigh Barty in Rome, and already has three top-10 wins this season. She’s feeling better about her game on clay – her best Roland-Garros performance was making the semi-finals in 2013 – and will be a non-seed everyone will be hoping to avoid in the first round in Paris.

Her coach Wim Fissette is thrilled to see her enjoying herself on tour again. He marvels at the work she’s done so far to power through the hard times and believes “the old Vika” is back.

“She was probably at the lowest point of her career at that moment [in Melbourne]. And to be honest it wasn’t that long ago, it was January, we’re in May now, and I have a lot of respect for the steps she has made,” Fissette told reporters in Madrid earlier this month.

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Practice day in Rome @internazionalibnlditalia

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“She took it in her own hands, she did a lot of mental work from the week after Australia and she’s still doing it. She’s putting in the work on a daily basis and it really helps her.

“I see now a different Vika, or actually not different, it’s the old Vika that I love to see on the court. She’s showing confidence on the court and entertaining the fans and that’s how I like to see her. And Stuttgart was the first week that I’ve seen the old Vika back. I’m super happy about it and I look forward to what’s next.”

Azarenka admits she’s regaining her confidence but disagrees with her Belgian coach when it comes to his phrasing.

“He was wrong. I don’t feel like the old Vika. I feel like I’m a much better version of myself and I never will be basing that on my results on the tennis court,” she explained.

“I do feel like my confidence is growing and growing and that’s probably what he meant. But in terms of outlook, I don’t feel like the old Vika, I don’t want the old Vika for sure.

“I just want to continue to grow. I’m at the stage in my career that I’m still excited about process and journey and working hard and trying to improve and I think that’s really fun because that’s what’s going to continue to drive me a little bit more forward and try to continue to improve.”

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Felices juntos ❤️ mi Bebe 💕

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Since returning to the tour as a mother, Azarenka has become more and more vocal about issues that matter to her. Whether it’s advocating for better conditions for mothers on the circuit, or spreading the message that there is strength in being vulnerable, the former world No.1 is making sure the legacy she leaves behind in tennis will be more than just her success on the court.

With another Grand Slam just around the corner, Azarenka is happy to share the secret behind bouncing back from her Australian Open letdown.

“I understood that being comfortable you’re never going to achieve things, so it’s okay to be uncomfortable, because that’s what’s going to make you better,” she says.

“I think people are sometimes afraid to get out of the comfort zone because it feels so familiar, it feels nice, and when it’s something unusual, it feels like you’re in danger. And I just started doing things that I’m afraid of and that feel dangerous to me and I’m just going to go and try to fight through them and see what it feels like.”