WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—“To step for the first time on the court with the fresh grass, with those lines just lined, it was beautiful.”
Victoria Azarenka, poet of the lawns? That would normally sound like a far-fetched idea; Vika is better known as an ornery competitor than a celebrator of beauty. And to be sure, her fierce, fighting side was much in evidence in her 6-3, 7-5 win over Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on Monday. Fist-pumping and berating herself, Azarenka came back from a break down in the second set. When she closed out the win, she wagged her finger in the air and stuck out her tongue like the Vika of old, like the Vika of her No. 1 days. And why not? It was her first victory since she injured her foot in January.
“I was super happy to get a win,” Azarenka said. “I’m just very happy to be able to play.”
Yet Vika also says that some things have changed in the three months she spent away from the tour. Relegated to the sidelines and in the middle of a breakup with her boyfriend, she tried her hand at painting and claims she discovered her artistic side in the process. It seems to have been, at first, quite a mess.
“Painting came to me all of a sudden,” said an unusually exuberant and chatty Azarenka. “I just wanted to try it. I feel it’s one of the best ways to express your emotion.”
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” she went on, “I start painting. I don’t know what in the hell I paint. I started doing it with my hands. I was like, ‘OK, I feel very emotional right now.’ I didn’t want to wash my hands, so I [dried them] on my shirt. I walked outside because I was lazy. People were like, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing shirt, where did you get it?’”
Soon enough, Vika had met with her sponsor, Nike, about producing more of her splatter-art T-shirts. Even more stunning, she was getting lessons in Russian avant-garde art history from...Ernests Gulbis, of all people.
“He’s very smart, actually,” Azarenka said with a cackle.
Vika was in that kind of mood. She talked about her love of Lionel Messi—“he’s so little, so cute”—and how she needs to get her Argentine-colored nails repainted. She talked about how the World Cup and Wimbledon bring people together to create a “moment of peace, that moment of love for the sport.” Most of all Azarenka reflected on her own love for sport, and what it means to her to be back playing tennis. It's the most basic aspects of the game that are the most gratifying right now.
“The best feeling is to play pain-free,” Azarenka said. “That’s what’s important for me. It was just important to actually hit the ball.”
Despite today’s win, there’s much work to be done before Azarenka approaches her best tennis. She double-faulted eight times, and made nearly as many errors as she hit winners—that’s not a good sign at Wimbledon, which has the most generous official scorers in the game. Her fastest serve was just 104 M.P.H., and she nearly lost a set to a 32-year-old who is currently ranked No. 108.
“Getting the game together and timing,” Azarenka said, “it’s all a long process. But the important thing is that I’m there, you know, 100 percent. My desire and concentration is there. That’s all I can ask of myself.”
From this observer's perspective, it was nice to see Vika back on court—the sport gets a little fiercer, a little more determined with her around. You can forget what defines a player, what makes them who they are, what makes them successful, what makes then worth watching, until you don’t see them on court for a while. Azarenka doesn’t succeed with elegance—she's not what we normally think of as an artist on the court—but with a desire and emotion that always threatens to boil over. In some ways, it boils over with every shot, in the famously long grunt she makes when she hits them. Her raw competitive style may never make Vika a fan favorite, and she'll boil over in worse ways in the future, but it was bracing to watch again.
Today Azarenka also added a different emotion to her play: An appreciation of the job itself, which is something that can be hard to muster week in and week out on tour.
“Just to see any sport in general,” she said, “when you bring people together for that moment. When you walk on the court, all eyes on you, it’s the most amazing thing. When you’re not playing, that’s what you’re missing, is that moment. It’s beautiful.”
As every poet knows, the greatest pleasures are the ones you take for granted.
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