After her first-round loss to Laura to No. 79 Laura Siegemund in the 2019 Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka came into a small interview room. She sat sideways. Her sorrow clear, she lifted her eyes to the ceiling. She confided, “Right now it’s a harder struggle for me. It’s okay. I don’t think I failed. Failing is when you give up.” She said, “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 have to be realistic. I have to continue to try to find a way. We’ll see. It’s a shit beginning…but it’s not the end of the year.”
She cried. Then she bravely 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.”
Still Vika struggled. There were custody issues relating to her son, depositions, tough draws and unimpressive rankings. She came to New York in mid-August not having won a match in a year. But her attitude had totally changed. In the past, she confessed, she never enjoyed tennis. Now she did. Before, when she’d lost, she was gutted, and couldn’t function for days.
Now in New York, you could say she was functioning. She won the Western and Southern and, despite being unseeded, swept to the US Open semis. But there she faced Serena. Her record against Williams was a miserable 4-18 overall and 0-10 in majors, and she’d faltered badly when she was serving against Serena for the 2012 US Open title.
Tonight, not surprisingly, in the opening set, Vika was overpowered and got drubbed 6-1. Surely Serena would now march on and try, for a fifth time try to win to a final that would able her to equal a fabled record – 24 Slams.
But Vika has told us tennis is a puzzle that she likes to solve. She reminded us, “Where I grew up was a tough place. I was conditioned to adversity. We have tough people – and I love it.”
The Belarus native, who long ago was motivated by the tough love of her old-school grandmother, had originally found herself alone in New York City at age 10. Now the 31-year-old roared back in what is one of the loudest match-ups in tennis.
The last time the two mothers met was at Indian Wells. Mary Carillo brought the action to life: “Pow! Pop! Wham! Wop! Humph! Oooh!” When heard those same sounds echoing tonight in a vast empyty New York stadium. What was different in the second set was that Vika had gotten used to Serena’s fierce serve and she started to step in on Williams’ second serve. She scrambled and willed her way into the match. She seemed to say, “I want this – this is mine!”
Serena admitted she took her foot off the gas pedal, but she noted that Vika knows her game well. Williams expressed her admiration: “I don’t know how [over the years] she stayed positive. It’s a good lesson for us all.” Serena graciously added, “She just lifts her game to unseen levels…She’s the kind of person you root for.”
Tonight Azarenka showed us early on-the-rise strikes, deep, kiss-the-line groundies, severe angles, whiplash changes of direction, impressive defense-to-offense forays, the athleticism of a kid and the guile of a veteran. She believed.
Just on the other side of the giddy glory of tennis is a raw, unsparing reality that at times borders on cruelty. Azarenka has felt that. Seven years and seven days after her last major final, the woman who often considered retirement will face Naomi Osaka. Tonight she reflected on the twists of her unique journey. “When you’re coming up from kind of nothing, [and the] you become a No. 1 player…You can start to think you’re invincible and you’re better than everybody, and it’s not true. So the ego starts to grow. It’s very hurtful when it gets damaged, so..I tried to remove that and learn….that being a tennis player doesn’t make you better or worse than anybody else, that you’re still human, and all you can do is try to be the best version of yourself and keep improving. I try to put that [my ego] aside, but not when I play card games. It’s still so big.”
When Inside Tennis asked her how she dealt with her ego, she confided, “The best tools were me losing a lot of matches. That was the biggest tool that I could get. I could continue to stay on my high horse or I could just change and learn.
“I’m very proud that I took that challenge…and became better. I’m not talking about a better tennis player. I’m talking about a better person for myself, for my son. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
When IT asked about her fateful loss to Siegemund in Australia, Vika replied, “That was a really tough moment…Obviously I’m the kind of player and person who shows emotions and wears my heart on my sleeve. At some point, when bad things are happening, challenging things, you can be a victim and you can…”
Then inexplicably the lights went out in the press room. When they came back on she continued: “I was saying that vulnerability is good. Having emotions is good. Feeling myself constantly asking why things…happened was not beneficial. I stopped doing that.
“I started taking more responsibility for how I’m going to react to situations. That helped me grow. That helped me become a better person…[and] I think that shows on the tennis court, too.”
Vika went on: “When shit happens to you, you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s be positive.’…[But] it’s sometimes impossible to be positive. So being neutral, just not going into negativity, is very useful. It’s very simple.
“It’s very hard to do because it’s constant work, but…I feel like I started there. Then I started to shift into a better energy. It’s about being in the moment, taking whatever comes as it is. I always know that I’m in control of how I’m going to feel about any situation.”
Tonight Vika got out of a world of trouble. Now she’ll go home, give her son a cuddle and return Saturday and try to gain the double in the bubble, and either she or Osaka will win her third Grand Slam.
NAOMI’S MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Floridian Naomi Osaka recently moved to Los Angeles, the town that gave us the cinematic classic The Magnificent Seven, that included Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Eli Wallach. Now Naomi has her own magnificent seven.
Every year baseball has its Jackie Robinson Day, when each player in the league wears No. 42 in honor of the Dodger pioneer. When Kobe Bryant died, many wore his numbers. Through her six rounds at the US Open, Naomi has honored a fallen African American: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Philando Castile.
Then again, race has always been a part of American life and sports. Early in the 20th century, fans wanting to see the demise of the dominant African American boxer Jack Johnson wished for a “great white hope.” African American Jesse Owens derailed Hitler’s Olympics. After Robinson came Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Olympic sprinters who raised their fists, countless others who raised their voices, and a quarterback who took a knee. Now Osaka – quiet, reserved, shy and sometimes stumbling – has become the most unlikely of activists. Still so young, she often she seems close to tears. She says she’s humbled, is glad to have a voice, and is just a vessel. But she also has game.
A week ago, 25-year-old Jennifer Brady said no one pays attention when she’s joking around. But she sure came to the attention of the tennis world as she won the Lexington tourney and then swept to the US Open semis, without losing a set.
Brady admitted she is sarcastic, likes to have fun and “give people a lot of crap.” Tonight she gave two-time Slam Champ Osaka plenty of crap. Yes, Namoi served lights-out and played a fantastic tie-break to win the first set. But Brady, who hadn’t yet broken into the top 40, used her fearsome forehand, penetrating serve, athleticism and belief to hang in there and prevailed in an 18-stroke point to score a key break in the eighth game of the second set.
Jen then evened the hard-hitting, corner-to-corner battle to a set all. But Osaka’s uncanny steel confidence, focus, experience and power came to the fore. The popular star, who’s been reflecting on Billie Jean King’s “Pressure is a privilege” mantra, took advantage of her foe’s double-fault and broke when a Brady backhand was called out. Jen’s coach told her to challenge the call. She didn’t – but she should have. Replays showed that it just caught the baseline.
Sports are full of coulda’s and shoulda’s. But Osaka, whose grace under fire at the 2018 US Open final will forever be remembered, again showed why she should never be discounted. Her 7-6(1), 3-6, 6-3 win was magnificent. According to Darren Cahill it was “the best match of the tournament and maybe the whole year.” As it rained outside, Osaka reigned with winners.
Now Naomi will come out for Saturday’s final and face a magnificent mother, Victoria Azarenka, in what promises to be a magnificent final. We don’t know who’ll win.
But we do know Osaka will make a major statement. She will come out in a mask to honor another fallen victim and complete her very own Magnificent Seven. There has never been a commentary in sports quite like it. But then again, there has never been anyone in sports quite like this gifted, thoughtful, imposing and enchanting woman who claims she is just like any other 22-year-old, except she’s good at tennis.