Azarenka is firing on all cylinders in the fast lane
Belarusian drives away doubts over durability to take new route to the top
The most successful player on the women's tour this year admits that her off-the-court tastes are hardly original. "Cars, watches, clothes – like all the girls," Victoria Azarenka says. "I love Aston Martins."
Does she like driving fast? "I was really crazy when I got my driving licence," the 22-year-old from Minsk admits. "I would speed up. The police in Belarus are very nice and sometimes let me go, when they shouldn't probably. But I learned from it and I don't drive fast any more. I promised my mum that I wouldn't. She was like, 'I know you're a good driver, but please be careful.' And I am careful now."
Azarenka's tennis career has followed much the same route as her driving. She won titles at all four Grand Slam events as a junior, made her senior debut at 14, and at 19 won three tournaments in the space of four months. After beating Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena Williams in successive matches to claim the title in Miami in the spring of 2009, she was cruising in the fast lane with Grand Slam glory on the horizon.
While it would be wrong to suggest Azarenka's career skidded to a halt in the next two years, it seemed that whenever she was about to move clear of her rivals someone would come flying past her. From her own generation, Caroline Wozniacki became the world No 1 and Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon; of the old guard, Williams, Stosur, Kim Clijsters, Francesca Schiavone and Li Na kept pinching Grand Slam titles from under her nose.
There were times when luck was not on Azarenka's side – she was taken ill when beating Williams at the Australian Open, and collapsed on court at the US Open after hitting her head in the gym earlier in the day – but there were also questions about her durability and mental strength. When the going got tough, it was often the temperamental Azarenka who wavered. Nevertheless, there were signs of a new resilience when Azarenka reached the final of the WTA Championships at the end of last year – and spectacular affirmation of the change at the start of 2012.
By the time she lost her first match of the year at the end of March, Azarenka had won four titles, claimed her first senior Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open and become the world No 1, although Maria Sharapova reclaimed the top ranking with her victory at the French Open a fortnight ago.
So what changed? "It's hard to say it's one thing or that a miracle happened," Azarenka said. "Behind that there's a lot of hard work. I have to give credit to all the experience I had last year – maybe some unfortunate losses but also some losses that I really learned from.
"I think I'm more of a complete player. I have a better mind. I have a clear mind when I go on court. I know what I'm doing. I know that it's never going to be easy for me, it's never going to be how I want it. Maybe before, when things didn't happen how I wanted, I was like, 'Oh my God, it's not going my way, I don't want to do it.' This year my approach, if it's not going my way, is that I have to find a way to turn it around. It's a different mentality."
It is an approach with a distinctly French accent. Azarenka has been coached by Sam Sumyk, a Breton, since 2010, her physiotherapist is Jean-Pierre Bruyère, who used to work with Andy Murray, and in recent weeks Amélie Mauresmo has joined her entourage as a consultant.
Now based in Monte Carlo, Azarenka has not lived in her native Belarus for more than eight years. She went to Spain to train when she was 13 and then moved to Arizona, where she lived with the family of a Belarusian ice hockey player whose wife was a friend of her mother.
Success has enabled Azarenka to provide a new house for her parents in Minsk, where she also has a home of her own. "The last time I actually lived there was probably right before I left to go to Spain," she said. "I actually spend more time there now than when I was in Arizona. Every time I have a chance, I go home. I love to be in my own place and cook my own food.
"Belarus is special for me. It's a different mentality to everywhere else. It's home. I always feel relaxed. I feel that I'm always welcome – and having my family there, of course, makes a huge difference."
When she is in Minsk, she trains at the tennis centre where she first picked up a racket. "My mum worked there and after school I would go to see her," she said. "She had to keep me busy because I was always [pestering] her, so she gave me a racket and a tennis ball and let me play against the wall. One of the coaches saw me and asked me if I wanted to join the group. I was seven at the time."
Azarenka is grateful to her mother not only for introducing her to tennis but also for continuing to provide guidance along the way. There were times in the past when the emotional Belarusian let her frustrations get the better of her, but her mother always let her know what she thought about her behaviour. "My Mum said, 'You look like an idiot sometimes'," Azarenka said. "And she was right."
Victoria Azarenka's defeat in the fourth round of the recent French Open meant that reigning women's world No 1s have failed to win 16 of the past 18 Grand Slam tournaments.
Curse of the number ones
Australian Open: Justin Henin lost in quarter-finals.
French Open: Maria Sharapova lost in fourth round.
Wimbledon: Ana Ivanovic lost in third round.
US Open: Ivanovic lost in second round.
Australian Open: Jelena Jankovic lost in fourth round.
French Open: Dinara Safina lost in final.
Wimbledon: Safina lost in semi-finals.
US Open: Safina lost in third round.
Australian Open: Serena Williams won final.
French Open: Williams lost in quarter-finals.
Wimbledon: Williams won final.
US Open: Williams did not play.
Australian Open: Caroline Wozniacki lost in semi-finals.
French Open: Wozniacki lost in third round.
Wimbledon: Wozniacki lost in fourth round.
US Open: Wozniacki lost in semi-finals.
Australian Open: Wozniacki lost in quarter-finals.
French Open: Azarenka lost in fourth round.
Five women who can surprise the big guns
JIE ZHENG, CHINA
Reached Wimbledon semi-finals four years ago before losing to Serena Williams and made same stage of 2010 Australian Open. Has struggled for consistency but won Auckland title at start of year and showed good form in reaching semi-finals on grass at Edgbaston last week.
CHRISTINA McHALE, UNITED STATES
Broke into world’s top 100 for first time last year and is now second-highest-ranked American behind Serena Williams. Reached last 32 at Australian Open and French Open this year. Made second round at Wimbledon on only appearance two years ago.
URSZULA RADWANSKA, POLAND
Usually in shadow of sister, Agnieszka, who is world No 3, but won ITF title on grass at Nottingham earlier this month and beat Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon semi-finalist last year) at Edgbaston. Former Wimbledon junior champion in singles and doubles.
LAURA ROBSON, BRITAIN
Loves the big occasion and has a game that can work well on grass, with big leftie serve and booming ground strokes. Won Wimbledon junior title four years ago and recorded first All England Club win in main draw last year against Angelique Kerber, who is now world No 8.
MELANIE OUDIN, UNITED STATES
Beat four top-40 Russians, including Maria Sharapova, en route to 2009 US Open quarterfinals, but career went into subsequent slide. Came back this year to earn wild card at French Open and won first WTA title at Edgbaston last week, beating Jelena Jankovic in final.
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