On the other side of the giddy glory of tennis is a raw reality that at times borders on cruelty.
Writer Reem Abulleil noted, “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 facade. When they crack, it’s breaking news. When they break a racket 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…Confessing to being vulnerable comes at a price.”
In Melbourne, the Yarra River runs right by the Australian Open. But another river – a river of emotion – flows there too. From Murray to Kvitova and Osaka, many cried this year. The press conferences of Murray and Heather Watson were halted by tears. Pros may seem like proud beacons of self-control, but virtually all the top ones – Djokovic, Nadal, Kyrgios – and of course, Federer – weep.
Last summer Caroline Wozniacki noted, “Everyone will feel vulnerable when they are having a bad day…or you have to make choices…you’re juggling everything. Being a pro in the spotlight, being judged for everything, you can’t have a bad day because it’s instantly talked about…[So] you need to suck it up, to keep going…We learn if you lose a tough match, don’t show weakness. If you have a terrible day, don’t show you’re struggling. It’s just how it is in sports. [But] it’s nice that Serena and other players whom people respect show that [it’s okay] if we don’t always have perfect days…[and] don’t 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. That makes it easier to find a solution.”
Enter the good and great Victoria Azarenka. Once, the Belarusian native appeared to be yet another carefree kid scoring heady results. She twice lifted the Aussie Open trophy and gained two Olympic medals. And she was in love – she had a wild, long-haired rocker boyfriend named Redfoo. Then, with a new boyfriend, she had a son. Sadly, a wretched custody battle ensued. Vika loved being a mother, but she openly spoke about wrestling with depression. Sadly, since returning from maternity leave in June 2017, she hasn’t come close to the top ten, where she’d camped before.
Being No. 51 is a big pill for a former No. 1 to swallow. Worse yet, despite great effort and great coaches, her results aren’t trending up – she lost in the first round in both Auckland and Melbourne.
Vika is immensely appealing. She was shipped off from home and found herself in New York at the age of ten. When her early tennis career faltered, her grandmother (who worked two jobs to survive) whipped her into shape. Yes, Vika was loud.
But often she was fun, rather spontaneous, wise, very human, and vulnerable.
After her first-round Aussie Open loss to No. 76, Laura Siegemund, she slumped despondently in a small interview room. As if in some kind of avoidance, she sat sideways. Her sorrow clear, her eyes on the ceiling, she confided, “Right now, it’s just a harder struggle for me…It’s okay. I don’t think…I failed. Failing is when you give up.” She said that if she had to continue to struggle to get out of where she is, “I’m going to continue to struggle. 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.”
She noted that she has lofty expectations, but “I have to be realistic, I have to work hard… to find a way. We’ll see. It’s a s–t beginning…but it’s not the end of the year.”
Then I asked her, “Vika, you’ve achieved so much, yet you’ve been through so much…How did you find the strength to deal with it all?”
The question brought her to a halt – we felt the weight of the moment. Vika wept. She sat frozen. Wandering within, she silently reflected. The nondescript room filled with tension. Bravely, Vika gathered herself and gave a courageous answer for the ages: “I’ve been through a lot of things. Sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger…I’m going to work hard for it. Sometimes I just need a little time and patience, and a little support.”
Everyone in the room felt the searing poignancy of the moment. Many of us just wanted to give her a hug. Victories do matter – but vulnerability also inspires.