COMMENTARY | Many people can't pinpoint Minsk, Belarus, on a map. The city, with a population that hovers around 2 million, is the birthplace of a young woman who finds herself amongst the top three women's tennis players in the world.
Meet Victoria Azarenka, otherwise known as Vika to those close to her. Her roots within the sport can be traced back to when she was 7 and hitting against the walls of the tennis club at which her mother used to work. Nicknamed "Bee," the Belarusian was known for her quick movement and tendency to run around. Her athletic prowess and tenacity, evident from a young age, carved her destiny.
"A year after I started playing tennis, I just got so into it. That's all I wanted to do, so I decided that if I want to do it, I have to do it right and I have to become a professional," she said.
A little-known fact to many is that at the age of 15 Azarenka moved to the States, where she would further pursue what would become a tennis career. Scottsdale, Ariz., was what she soon called home. Leaving your family at a young age could be tough on anyone, and it becomes increasingly difficult when you have to leave all you know to move to a foreign country, but Azarenka was determined in fulfilling her dream.
In 2005, Azarenka won the Australian Open and U.S. Open junior titles in her second year on the junior tour. Fast forward two years, and Azarenka, who was just 17, was already making a name for herself at the senior level.
Many people forget the immense amount of success Vika had before she began winning Grand Slams in singles competition. She partnered her countryman, veteran doubles player Max Mirnyi, to reach the mixed-doubles final at the 2007 Australian Open before they captured the U.S. Open mixed-doubles crown later that year. The Belarusian was a hot prospect, and Bob Bryan, one half of the most winningest doubles team in the world, picked up on that. He and Azarenka joined forces to win the 2008 Roland Garros title on the red clay in Paris when she was still in her teens.
All talk aside, before Azarenka became one of the hottest -- and most competitive -- singles players on the women's tour, she had a bit of a different side to herself.
The young woman, who collects teddy bears and has dreamt of becoming a fashion designer off the court, battled her harshest demons on the court a few years ago. Azarenka, who was known as a hothead, displayed episodes of erratic behavior. It made you wonder if she had, or would develop, the composure needed to beat the game's top players.
After winning the Sony Ericsson in March of 2009, which was her most gratifying win to said date, she found herself in a rut. Let's take a moment to remember her match against Petrova in the fourth round of Wimbledon later that year. Azarenka mimicked her own movements on court, sarcastically went to shake a lines-person's hand after telling the umpire, "You guys have so much power to ruin the whole match," and impulsively battled her inner demons to the English crowd's dismay.
After disagreeing with a handful of calls and being the center of her own self-induced tantrum, she was fortunate to pull off a 6-3 deciding set to win. Azarenka displayed a slightly lighter meltdown in Doha in October. Playing Caroline Wozniacki in the year-end championships, Azarenka hit a ball into the stands before violently smashing her racquet on the ground.
Things were not going well mentally for Victoria. But, with that said, every player has a time and place for his or her psychological downfalls and "McEnroe" outbursts; even 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer was known for his fiery temper as a junior.
Now, you're probably wondering how Azarenka transformed into the player she is today. Maybe it was maturity and a realization that she needs to change her mindset to become a champion. But it was more than that. It was a deep look inside her own self.
Two years later, Azarenka discovered a newly found confidence. After taking a split second to contemplate whether or not to quit the sport, Azarenka was on her way to becoming stronger than ever. Following the 2011 Australian Open, Azarenka received a few wise words from her grandmother.
"I said I didn't want to do something that I'm not enjoying," said the then-ranked No. 58. "Then don't do it. You have to be happy. ... 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,'" she recalled her grandmother saying.
The reverse psychology worked, and Azarenka was quickly on her way to becoming a Grand Slam champion the year after.
Azarenka paved a different path for herself in 2012. It was hard to recognize the player that we had come to know before. The usually emotional 23-year-old had a positive vibe on the court. In a semblance distorted to most, Azarenka came out with a new trademark boxer-like aura on court -- earbuds in ears and hoodie on head -- appearing to be in nothing but the zone. Much of this could be credited to her coach of three years, Sam Sumyk, whom Azarenka says helped mold her into a new individual.
"Sometimes you need to be more aggressive, more, you know, kind of pissed off a little bit, you know, to kind of pump yourself up. Sometimes you just need to relax and breathe," she stated in an interview when speaking of her new mindset.
Her upbeat presence combined with lethal concentration lead to her first Grand Slam singles title, the Australian Open. After winning a warm-up tournament in Sydney, she defeated Radwanska and Clijsters at the Slam before crushing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the final and capturing the No. 1 ranking. That year, she was undefeated until mid-March -- 26-0. She would go on to win four more WTA titles, reach the U.S. Open final where she lost a tough three-setter to Serena Williams, and find a new love interest in musician Redfoo, lead singer of LMFAO.
The Belarusian was no longer the young "bee" running around back in Minsk; she became queen bee of the tennis rankings.
Once 2013 rolled around, all eyes were glued to Azarenka. Could she defend her debut Grand Slam title? It was a tough task, but she was able to accomplish the feat by beating 29th-seeded Stephens and fending off a tough Li Na en route to her victory.
"The pressure was there, but I like the pressure, you know. It's interesting. It's a very interesting thing. It pushes you to be better. You can take it different way. You can take it negative and try to, you know, think negative. But I take it as a positive, something that will push me forward to improve, to get better, and the outcome is out of my hands," she stated in a press conference following the win.
When she's not playing on center court, Azarenka, who includes dancing as a part of her pre-match ritual and deems music "very important" to her life, can go unrecognized on the street. Her long, flowy blonde locks, preference of club-inspired tunes, and brightly colored clothing can make her mistaken for any other 23-year-old, but there's only one difference, or maybe two (her grunt is set to be featured in one of Redfoo's new songs). No matter how it took her to get there, Azarenka will always have something an average 23-year-old can't record on his or her list of achievements: being a two-time Grand Slam champion.
Olivia Glinka covers on-court and off-court tennis news as a writer and blogger. You can read her content on One Stop Tennis.
You can also get the tennis scoop by following her on Twitter @OneStopTennis.
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