Victoria Azarenka has all the presumed requirements to be a great tennis champion.
Born in Eastern Europe, trained in a land far from home where she was bound to gain grit, she has all the ingredients.
You know the check list: big body, power groundies, a ferocity that rattles the meek, an endless ponytail, a nifty nickname, a frizzy rock ‘n roll buddy, a gleaming Slam trophy and, yes, a shriek that’ll wake ‘em up in the next county.
But still, there aren’t too many Vika posters up in kids’ bedrooms. The Belarus bomber is
not so cozy. Grace isn’t her strong suit and we’d guess that she won’t be toting home too many sportsmanship awards too soon. Plus, she collapses.
Time and again we have seen her wince and wobble. She’s been hobbled and even rolled off the court in a wheelchair. Her injury stat sheet (which is all but an anatomy handbook) lists 37 maladies. Everything is there, from the head to her toe, including hip, dizziness, concussion, back, cramps and a couple of unknowns. Goodness, she even had to pull out of Perth because of a pedicure from hell. Go figure!
And although, she seemed to be in control throughout much of her match over tennis’ beloved sensation du jour, Sloane (the Serena Slayer) Stephens, Vika struggled mightily to slam the door on the charismatic Californian.
Up 6-1, 5-3 in the Australian Open semi, Azarenka’s forehand imploded. She may be ranked No. 1 in the world, but her nerves didn’t even crack the top 50 and it showed in an odd emotional display at crunch time.
Vika loses match point one: she flails her racket mightly.
Vika loses match point two: she unleashes a high pitched shriek which resonates in New Zealand.
Vika loses match point three: she smashes her racket.
Vika loses match point four: she offers a cosmically futile Hawkeye challenge.
Vika loses match point five: She bangs a ball into the stands.
It wasn’t pretty, but we’ve seen so much worse.
But then Vika crossed a line as she orchestrated a gamesmanship ploy which took full advantage of the rules.
Feeling short of breath, pressure in her chest and suffering an all around panic attack, she successfully attacked tennis’ medical rules and got not one, but two, medical time-outs and was able to leave the court for a good ten minutes. They say play should be continuous.
It wasn’t on this hot, bleak day. Azarenka said, “I had to take a little bit of time to calm down. I couldn't breathe, I had chest pains. It was like I was having a heart attack or something. I did it to make sure I was Ok because I really could not breathe.”
So Vika was not only able to re-group; she not only left when her foe was about to serve; she effectively iced Stephens who, after much struggle, finally had found her elusive groove. Momentum is everything and Stephens had at last had gained due to her grit and Azarenka’s wretched forehand and suspect will. Now, the No. 1 had wrested it back and scored a 6-1, 6-4 win thanks to a trick and a loophole. An hour after her match she made things even worse when she changed her story completely and said that it was her back that was causing her breathing problems and she “had to unlock her ribs.”
Will we ever unlock this mystery? Who knows?
Sure, this is hardly Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds. Still Vika gamed the system with a quite legal move that brought to mind many a bleak moment in tennis lore. Justine Henin threw in the towel just before Amelie Mauresmo was about to win the 2006 Australian Open. Fernando Gonzalez didn’t admit a key James Blake forehand had hit him in the 2008 Beijing Olympic quarterfinals. Justine Henin didn’t admit she raised her hand to stop play at the French Open against Serena.
The list goes on. And gamesmanship will go on.
That doesn’t mean we have to like it and as Azarenka walked off a court named after the very sporting Rod Laver there were few in Melbourne who viewed her with great favor.