Does Better Start Now?

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An under-the-radar Victoria Azarenka remains a threat at the U.S. Open. (AP)

Tennis is not just the sport of a lifetime, it’s also the sport of swank watch commercials. So if you’ve tired of watching Roger Federer, dressed in a suit that costs more than your car, gazing at giant, museum-grade pictures of himself in an ad for Rolex, you can now see Victoria Azarenka in heavy rotation for her watch sponsor, Citizen.

In that ad, as Azarenka she prepares to walk out onto a stadium court, she tells the viewer, “At this moment all my past accomplishments mean nothing. Better starts now.”

Those are ironic words, given the extent to which Azarenka has been spinning her wheels since she last won a Grand Slam title and held the No. 1 ranking (both in February 2013). Once seen as the successor to Serena Williams, Azarenka has become the leading enigma of women’s tennis.

Now 26, Azarenka remains stuck at two Grand Slam titles, the pair of Australian Opens she won in 2012 in ’13. She assumed the top ranking after the first of those triumphs and held it until just after her successful defense. It was part of a 15-match win streak that lasted up to the quarterfinals of Indian Wells, a run that included a poised, impressive three-set win in the Doha final over Serena Williams.

An ankle injury forced Azarenka to issue a walkover to Caroline Wozniacki at Indian Wells, introducing a major theme of her career: Surprising fragility for such a sturdily built woman.

With Azarenka out of the tournament, Sharapova snatched away the top ranking. Azarenka hasn’t held it since.

Continued physical problems tell part of Azarenka’s story. She was forced out of Wimbledon with a serious knee injury later that summer, ending her streak of semifinals (or better) at four consecutive majors. When she returned in the summer, a bad back led her to back out of the Rogers Cup.

What followed was what continues to tantalize us about Azarenka’s game: She went on to win Cincinnati, beating Serena in the final, and took the world No. 1 to three sets in the U.S. Open final for the second consecutive year. But more injuries followed. In 2014, a left foot injury caused Azarenka to miss four-and-a-half months ending in mid-June, and she was so dissatisfied with her post-U.S. Open progress that she pulled the plug on her year in September, finishing up ranked No. 32.

Azarenka has made some progress since then, climbing back to No. 20. But at Cincinnati, where she trounced Lauren Davis and then impressively did the same to No. 5 seed Caroline Wozniacki (6-0, 6-4), she retired against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, citing a bad leg.

"I managed to play through and kind of adjust (to the injury), but today I started to feel like getting a little bit worse,” Azarenka told the press. “You know, such a short period of time before the U.S. Open—it’s a little bit dangerous. I had to unfortunately make that decision."

The suggestion is that the retirement was a preventative measure, so it’s hard to say what effect it might have on Azarenka’s fortunes in Flushing Meadows. But the move added yet another layer of mystery to an already puzzling tennis biography shaped by many elements, not all of them happy ones.

For one, there was the raging perfectionism and the anger issues that held young Azarenka back despite her copious talent. She made her professional breakthrough in 2009, following a return to her native Belarus and a heart-to-heart chat with a beloved grandmother. The matriarch essentially advised “Vika” to set aside her anger, get in touch with her love for the game, and pursue happiness. She listened, and began her ascent to the very top almost immediately by winning Miami, one of the sport’s top non-major events.

Years later, Azarenka, an enthusiastic pop-music fan and aspiring hipster, struck up a relationship with singer Stefan Gordy, aka Redfoo. The pair were a high-profile couple, but the relationship ended late in Azarenka’s difficult 2014. In a widely-quoted story from the New York Times, Azarenka told Chris Clarey that she experienced a period of depression after Gordy broke things off. “I did get my heart broken,” she told Clarey, “I really did. I’m over it now, but it was broken. And I’m not afraid to admit it was, but that’s life.”

Then, just as Azarenka was beginning to establish some momentum earlier this year, her coach of five years up and quit on her. Sam Sumyk informed Azarenka of his decision the day after she lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Dominika Cibulkova. Up to then, many singled out the relationship between Azarenka and her coach as one of the closest—as well one of the most successful—in tennis.

If timing is everything, then the timing here suggests a deep lack of consideration for Azarenka. She took the high road, denying that she felt betrayed or angry, but professed surprise and said she felt “sadness.” Just days later, Sumyk was coaching Eugenie Bouchard (that relationship quickly failed), while Azarenka moved on and has been working with Wim Fissette.

Azarenka has yet to win a title this year, but she may still be the greatest obstacle looming in Serena Williams’ path to a calendar-year Grand Slam. Because of her relatively low ranking and, now, the renewed specter of injury, Azarenka is flying so far below the radar that she’ll be hitting some of those famous New York potholes.

But don’t be fooled. This is the same player who beat Venus Williams in Madrid this year and then had three match points against Serena two rounds later—only to lose in heartbreak.

A few weeks later, Azarenka had Serena on the ropes again at Roland Garros, where she was two service holds from a win, but failed again. Keep in mind, though, that Azarenka vastly prefers hard courts to clay, a prejudice manifest in her record against Serena at the U.S. Open. The two played back-to-back three-set finals at the end of Azarenka’s peak years of 2012 and ‘13. Serena won them both, but each of them was a knock-down, drag-out affair. One thing Azarenka is not when it comes to Williams is intimidated.

The first of those two matches was closer, with Williams a 7-5 in-the-third thriller. Then in 2013, Williams was a set and 4-1 up when Azarenka mounted a furious charge. Williams served for the title on two occasions and was broken both times. Azarenka forced a tiebreaker, won it, but her game sputtered in the third set, which Williams surged back to win 6-1.

In her post-match presser, Azarenka said, “She’s a champion. . . She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too, so when two people who want it so bad meet, it’s like a clash.”

Does Azarenka still want it “so bad?” That’s a good question, with no easy answer. She’s seeded at the U.S. Open, but low enough (No. 20) that she could face some top-tier opponents early on (No. 11 Angelique Kerber in the third round, No. 6 Lucie Safarova in the fourth round, No. 2 Simona Halep in the quarterfinals).

If, as Azarenka says in the commercial, "better starts now," Serena will have plenty to worry about should they meet in the final at Flushing Meadows.

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