How grandma's pep talk inspired Azarenka run

World No 5 wanted to quit the game four months ago but a few home truths have turned her season around

Paul Newman
Thursday 30 June 2011 00:00

She is two wins away from winning Wimbledon and at No 5 is the highest-ranked player in today's semi-finals, yet Victoria Azarenka would pass largely unnoticed – presuming she did not take her grunting from the courts out on to the street – even if she walked from the All England Club to the nearby underground station at Southfields. The 21-year-old from Belarus had barely drawn the attention of the world's media before her quarter-final victory on Tuesday night over Tamira Paszek, following which she gave her first press conference of the tournament.

Like a number of the leading women players, Azarenka has struggled to take her consistency on the Women's Tennis Association tour into Grand Slam events. She has won seven titles and earned more than $7.1m (£4.4m) in prize-money, but until this week had never made it past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament. Today, nevertheless, she faces the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova for the right to play Maria Sharapova or Sabine Lisicki in Saturday's final.

The fact that Azarenka is here at all is down to a conversation she had four months ago. After seeing another promising run at a Grand Slam end in a fourth-round defeat to Li Na in Melbourne and making early exits in Dubai and Doha, Azarenka told her grandmother she was thinking of giving up a sport she had played since the age of seven.

"I said I didn't want to do something that I'm not enjoying," Azarenka recalled. "She said: 'Then don't do it. You have to be happy'. She was telling me these stories, about how hard she was working. She was actually working in a kindergarten with kids. She's been doing a lot of work, having two, three jobs at one time. It was like: 'Well, you just have to shut up and stop complaining because you have a pretty damn good life. Just work out there.'

"My Mum asked me: 'What are you going to do?' I said: 'I'm going to study.' She laughed out loud. She knows that I like to study, but I'm not going to be fulfilling that for a long time. I'm just going to get bored, because tennis is what I really love. I just had to take a step back and realise that is true. My mother's a very wise woman. She said: 'Just come back home, enjoy some time, and you decide'."

Azarenka said that as a result of her re-evaluation of her life she had taken a "completely different" approach to tennis. "Now I'm always happy on the court," she said. "I look forward to every challenge and try to be disciplined in what I'm working hard for. I'm just enjoying myself much more on the court."

The effect on her tennis was immediate. Azarenka has since won titles in Miami (where she beat five top-25 players, including Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva and Sharapova), reached the final in Madrid and made the quarter-finals in Paris, where she lost to Li, the eventual champion.

Azarenka has dropped only one set en route to the semi-finals but faces a formidable opponent in Kvitova, the 21-year-old having beaten her in the Madrid final and in the third round at Wimbledon 12 months ago. Kvitova, the world No 8, has won three titles already this year and loves playing on grass, having reached the semi-finals here last year, losing to Serena Williams.

The other semi-final also features two players who excel on the surface. Germany's Lisicki has won 15 of her last 16 matches on grass, reached the quarter-finals here two years ago and won the Edgbaston title this month, while Sharapova is aiming to recapture the title she won seven years ago.

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