Beyond Confidence

Sunday, March 18, 2012 /by

VaINDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Last week I wrote a post asking whether Victoria Azarenka, now that she was No. 1, had it in her to become to a popular No. 1. The idea came from watching fans head for the exits this week as her matches were announced. A few days later the media followed suit: Azarenka showed up for her press conference after her win over Angelique Kerber in the semis and found no press there to conference with. She laughed. “Empty. Perfect.”

Making herself an entertainer is not Azarenka’s job, obviously (though if it were, a makeover specialist might begin by advising her not to come out for a big final looking like she's heading for a practice session). Her job is winning tennis matches, and nobody on either tour has done it like Vika so far in 2012. Her convincing, borderline-imperious, 6-2, 6-3 win over Maria Sharapova today left her 23-0 on the year; it also left her with her first title at Indian Wells. She hasn’t played Serena, Petra, or even Caroline during that run, but she says she’s ready and waiting. It’s not her fault that none of those players have stepped forward to face her this year.

“Of course I’d love to play any of them,” Azarenka said after dismissing the woman who is closest to her in the rankings. “For me, the bigger the challenge, the more exciting it is. That’s what I’m looking for.”

On the one hand, she has to say that. Vika’s not going to tell the press that she’d rather avoid Serena in the draw. But watching and listening to Azarenka this week, I got a sense of someone looking forward, with impressively clear-sighted determination, to the next challenge.

Between points, she moved with a steady rhythm of purpose, with dispatch, but without hurry. There was no sense that she even noticed her surroundings. And she played that way during the points. Like Novak Djojkovic’s at this time last year, there’s a total lack of clutter or indecision to Azarenka’s game at the moment. Today she opened points with sharp serves and even sharper returns. Sharapova won a ridiculously low 46 percent of points on her first serve.

More impressive is the way that Azarenka approaches baseline rallies. She looks to do nothing more, or less, than hit a good, effective shot on each ball. She doesn’t try to rip winners, but she doesn’t push either. The combination of force and margin gave Sharapova nothing to work with. Maria tried moving up, moving back, taking chances, not taking chances; all it led to was errors, from both sides. She had her best success late, when she seemed to give up trying to create and was content just to move the ball around. It was never going to be enough.

Sharapova sounded suitably bewildered afterward. “She’s extremely solid,” she said of Azarenka at first. “She forces you to do too much.”

A few minutes later, though, Sharapova claimed that she hadn’t done enough: “I wasn’t as aggressive as I could be.”

Was she trying for too much, or not enough? At the moment, only one thing is clear: She has no answers for Azarenka.

Watching Vika today, I started to think that some of the things that make her hard for fans to relate to at the moment are the same things that are helping her play so well. She walks on court with her head under a hood and her ears filled with music, and she stays in her own highly focused world of fist-pumps and head nods throughout the match.

There’s a more open and personable side to Azarenka, of course. She began her press conference today by snapping photos of a WTA employee who’s leaving her job soon—“I just got an IPhone!” Azarenka blurted happily, and then teased the women, “You’re so red!”

For me, though, Azarenka was most interesting this week when she explained her current winning mindset. “Confidence is overrated,” she claimed in one presser. What did this boldly counterintuitive statement mean? Aren’t we told confidence is everything in tennis?

What Azarenka means is that confidence comes and goes with the wind; more important in the long run is to have your game properly prepared each day. “It doesn’t matter how confident you are if you don’t put in the work,” Azarenka said, “if you’re not disciplined enough. The most important thing for me is the routine, giving it all every day.” Belief comes not from winning matches, but from knowing that you did everything you could to be ready for them.

There you have one big reason for Azarenka’s streak: She knows what she can control—practicing, preparing—and what she can’t—her opponent's performance, and her own confidence level from one point to the next. This attitude has led her to 23 straight wins, and given WTA fans at least two things to look forward to in 2012: Seeing how far she can take that streak, and how she measures up in her eventual meetings with the tour’s other big names over the next few months. That’s should be entertaining enough.

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