Azarenka on a high after Australian Open win
The fact that Victoria Azarenka was wearing dark glasses when she walked back into Melbourne Park today may have had as much to do with the night before as the fierce sunshine that greeted the final morning of this year's Australian Open.
Fifteen hours after she had claimed her first Grand Slam title and the world No 1 ranking with her emphatic 6-3, 6-0 victory over Maria Sharapova, the 22-year-old Belarusian was still on a high - and it had nothing to do with the scary platform shoes that made her 6ft frame look more imposing than ever.
“We celebrated a little bit here [at Melbourne Park],” Azarenka said when asked how the previous night had gone. “Then we went with my team to party and do a little bit of dancing. It was a lot of fun, but unfortunately we couldn't find any karaoke. It was a long evening. I haven't really slept much and I'm still on a roll. I can't stop thinking and the emotions are too much. I can't really relax yet.”
As well as speaking on the phone to her parents in Belarus and to her “second family” in Arizona - from the age of 14 her training base was in Phoenix, where she lived with the family of the Belarusian ice hockey player, Nikolay Khabibulin - Azarenka spent much of yesterday morning answering emails and messages on text, Twitter and Facebook. Among them was an email from the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who awarded her the Order of the Motherland, one of the country's most prestigious honours.
Like the families of so many players from eastern Europe, Azarenka's went through hardship before reaping the rewards, which include a country house outside Minsk which the new world No 1 has just provided for her parents.
“I think that mentality's inside us,” Azarenka said. “I didn't really catch those really hard years when the USSR was breaking up, but I kind of have an idea. My parents worked so hard for me to have a chance to be a tennis player that I can never thank them enough. My Dad was working two jobs, my mum was working two jobs and I am just glad that I can do something for them so that they never have to work again in their life and they can just enjoy. That's the most important thing.”
Azarenka now appreciates her good fortune - “We're so privileged to be where we are, to play tennis, something we love,” she said - but it took a heart-to-heart conversation last year with her 72-year-old grandmother to dissuade her from giving up the sport after a series of disappointments.
“I said I didn't want to do something that I wasn't enjoying,” Azarenka said. “She said: 'Then don't do it. You have to be happy.' She was telling me stories about how hard she was working. It was like: 'Well, you just have to shut up and stop complaining because you have a pretty damned good life. Just work out there'.”
Even now Azarenka's first coach, Valentina Rzhanih, who worked with her between the ages of seven and 10, says her former charge is too serious on court. “I go to see her every time I'm at home,” Azarenka said. “Sometimes she gives me progress reports. She says: 'I just want to see you happy on the court.' I say: 'I'm trying.' She says: 'When I see you unhappy that just bugs me every time. You have to be happy'.”
While the consistent Azarenka rarely wavered after a poor start - she lost the first two games but won 12 of the last 13 and made only 12 unforced errors to Sharapova's 30 - her opponent looked badly out of sorts. It is four years since 24-year-old Sharapova won a Grand Slam title and although she reached the finals both here and at Wimbledon she has work to do to catch her conquerors, Azarenka and Petra Kvitova, who are the two players above her in the world rankings. Caroline Wozniacki, world No 1 until yesterday, has dropped to No 4.
Azarenka's triumph here was a reward for all the hard work put in by a player who in the past has not always appeared the strongest, either physically or mentally. “You know what I thought yesterday?” Azarenka said. “All those ice baths that I did, that I hate so, so bad, that were hurting me every day, it was worth it. There was one day I was like: 'No, I'm not going to do it today.' But I pushed myself and those things, those little things at this level I think make the difference.”
She added: “Last year I definitely had a doubt about it, when I thought about quitting. But I was kind of building my mountain, rock by rock, climbing, climbing, climbing, so it doesn't matter how I got here really. I enjoyed the whole journey. And I just want to enjoy it all the way to the end of my career.”
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