MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 15: Victoria Azarenka reacts in her first round match against Laura Siegemund during day two of the 2019 Australian Open (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

WHY WE LOVE VIKA – The Strength and Emotional Candor of Victoria Azarenka

Bill Simons

Just on the other side of the giddy glory of tennis is a raw, unsparing reality that at times borders on cruelty.

After all, notes writer Reem Abulleil, “When you think of pro athletes, you instantly imagine them as strong, ruthless, untouchable…It’s an image they strive to project as well. They are coached from a young age not to show emotion, to conceal their weaknesses and portray an impenetrable façade. When they crack, it’s breaking news. When they break a racquet or scream or cry, it’s immediately GIFed and replayed thousands of times on the internet. The constant scrutiny discourages them from exhibiting how they really feel most of the time. To them, confessing to being vulnerable comes at a price they’re not necessarily willing to pay.”

Here in Melbourne the Yarro river runs right by the Australian Open. But another river, a river of emotion, has been flowing strong. After losing 6-0, 6-0 to Maria Sharapova, young Brit Harriet Dart darted from the arena in tears. And there have been at least three press conferences that have been halted as players wept. England’s Heather Watson lost in the first round and cried. In tennis she said the highs are so high and the lows are so low. In a press conference seen around the world last week Andy Murray broke down during his “The pain is just too much” retirement announcement. It brought to mind Arthur Ashe crying in New York when he told the world he had AIDS, or Jennifer Capriati breaking down at the US Open.

Pros may seem like proud beacons of self-control. But, truth be told, virtually all the top ones – Djokovic, Kyrgios, Osaka – weep. From London and Paris to Melbourne and beyond, the sensitive soul Roger Federer cries with notable regularity. He always has. Even macho Rafa has sobbed time and again.

Caroline Wozniacki put it this way: “Everyone at one time or another will feel vulnerable when they are having a bad day or things happen or you have to make choices…or decide what’s important when you’re juggling everything. Being a professional and being in the spotlight and being judged for everything, you can’t have a bad day because it’s instantly written or talked about – that’s hard…[So] you need to suck it up, you need to keep going…We learn if you lose a tough match, don’t show weakness. If you have a terrible day, don’t show anyone you’re struggling. It’s just how it is in sports. [But] it’s nice that Serena and other players who people look up to and respect show that even though we are who we are we don’t always have perfect days, we don’t always know what the right thing to do is or have everything figured out. I think people were scared to talk about it. But it’s great we can actually take a look at that now and that makes it easier to find a solution.”

Enter the great, the good and the struggling Victoria Azarenka. Once the Belarusian native seemed like a jolly kid who scored great results. She twice lifted the Aussie Open trophy and gained two Olympic medals. Plus, she was in love. She had a wild, long-haired rocker boyfriend, Redfoo, who was a darn good tennis player. That’s kind of cool. Then she had her son Leo with a new boyfriend. But a wretched custody battle ensued that spilled into the law courts and for a good while kept Azarenka off of tennis courts outside of California. She loved being a mother, but she openly spoke about her battle with depression. Sadly, since returning from her maternity leave in June 2017, she hasn’t come close to the top-ten where she’d camped before.

Now No. 53, she’s mired in the middle, which is a tough reality for the former No. 1 to swallow. Worse yet, despite great effort, great practices and a great coach, things aren’t trending up. She lost in the first round in Auckland. In Melbourne she was unseeded and lucky enough to get a good draw. She faced No. 78 Laura Siegemund in the first round, the kind of opponent good players have to dismiss with ease. But after winning the first set, Vika faltered in three sets to the German, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2.

I’ve long found Vika immensely appealing. She isn’t an Eastern European phenom with the instant sex goddess appeal of Anna Kournikova, the fabulous strokes of Monica Seles or the career achievements on and off-court of Maria Sharapova.

But the kid who was shipped off from home and found herself in New York at the age of ten, has a fabulous and courageous backstory. When her career seemed to stall, her grandmother (who worked two jobs to survive) whipped her into shape. Yes, Vika was loud. Her shrieks were annoying to some, but it sure showed her intent. And she was always, fun, wise, rather spontaneous, very human and a tad vulnerable.

In Melbourne, after her first-round loss, she came into a small interview room. She sat sideways. Her sorrow was clear, her eyes lifted to the ceiling, she was beside herself and confided,  “Right now it’s just a harder struggle for me…I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s okay. I don’t think…I failed. Failing is when you give up.” She said if she had to continue to struggle to get out of where she is, then, “I’m going to continue to struggle.”

Long an adept wordsmith, she quipped, “If there’s a store where you can buy confidence, I’ll go purchase it…My ambitions are high, I know what I’m capable of…It’s going to be a process. I think being so idealistic…I put myself really high…[but] I have to be realistic, I have to work hard, I have to keep playing, I have to continue to try to find a way. We’ll see. It’s the beginning of the season, it’s a s–t beginning…but it’s not the end of the year.”

The moment was wrought with emotion. But I made tough decision to speak up. I noted her journey. I mentioned how far she’d come in her notable life, all that she’d achieved and the hefty obstacles she’d overcome. Then I asked, how did she find the strength to deal with all that?

The question brought her to a halt. You sensed her sorrow. She wept and sat frozen, wandering within deep reflections. The roomed filled with an emotional tension. Bravely, Vika gathered herself and said, “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger, I want to believe that and I’m going to work hard for it. Sometimes I just need a little time and patience and a little support.”

It was one of the most poignant moments I’ve seen in four decades of covering tennis. I sensed many in the room just wanted to just give her a hug or tell her that we supported her.

As it was just days ago when Andy announced his retirement, our sport proved to be an unsparing task master. The rewards are so great, pressures mount. After all, as I mentioned, just on the other side of the giddy glory of tennis is a raw, unsparing reality that at times borders on cruelty.



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