Chasing Victoria

Saturday, May 29, 2010 /by

PARIS—Victoria Azarenka has won only two of her last seven matches. For one of the tour's most promising 20-and-unders, who won Miami last year and has been ranked as high as No. 6, it's a run that requires some explanation, particularly after her French Open campaign ended in a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Gisela Dulko in the first round. But it’s tough to get to the bottom of Azarenka’s poor performance if you can’t talk to her, and there hasn’t been a peep out of her all week.

She was scheduled to come in for a press conference after the match, but she went to an anti-doping test and then disappeared. Because players must turn up for press conferences if requested, she was fined $4,000.

Her win-loss record suggests a leg injury at April's WTA event in Marbella was a possible catalyst for her poor form—she retired in the quarterfinals and has not won two matches in a row since. But that's not much to go on. Spotting her in the doubles draw with Vera Zvonareva, I request her after their first-round doubles win.

During the first week of the tournament, the interview desk at the French Open resembles the order station at a Paris restaurant during lunch. But the shrewd heads at the interview desk immediately recognize this request will have to be handled with a little finesse. "She says she's happy to talk to you," the word comes back, rather surprisingly, "but she wants to do it after practice tomorrow." I suspect she’s avoiding an interview, but—sure, no problem.

Tomorrow arrives. A careful glance at the practice sheet shows no V. Azarenka. Neither does the second or third glance. Cheeky little thing.

So it's on to Plan C—Azarenka will come in for an interview after her next doubles match, win or lose.

Tomorrow arrives again. Not only is Azarenka's doubles not scheduled for the day, but it's raining, which will back up the schedule and means she may not play again till the weekend. Time to give up, perhaps.

But then Azarenka makes a foolish, fatal error. She shows up for a meal in the players lounge, and gets spotted when I'm here on another errand. A gentle nudge to the interview desk, and the runners are quickly dispatched to try to reel her in.

It works. Meeting as arranged in the lounge, Azarenka returns the handshake and replies, "Hi," but doesn't smile. Though the chase is over, it's important to stay vigilant—she could yet get away.

The place is jammed with players, coaches and hangers-on whiling away the rain delays, and for a few minutes it seems almost all the time could be taken up just looking for a place to sit. Walking towards the transport area, Azarenka runs into Dinara Safina, and the interview is temporarily put on hold again as the two greet each other enthusiastically. Safina's face, all smiles, freezes at the sight of a reporter with such horror that it's hard not to feel sorry for her.

I step away, and they laugh and talk cheerfully in Russian for a few minutes. This is "Vika" now, the other side of Azarenka; the one who hangs out with Ernests Gulbis and goes shopping with Caroline Wozniacki.

"Sorry," she says afterwards, some of the pleasantness spilling over. Then another chat with someone else she knows, and finally we do the interview standing alongside a wall in the corridor. Despite everything that's come before, the toughest challenge is still ahead—getting enough material to make it worthwhile.

"I've been injured and haven't been able to play at my best level, but you cannot always go through good form, good results," she says when asked about her recent losses. "You always have a little bit of bad results, so for me it's important to get ready for Wimbledon and I'm getting healthy now so that's the important thing."

The room is loud and she's talking as if to the wall behind her, so the tape recorder will have to float just inches from her face for the rest of the interview.

What was the injury? "It was several. It wasn't just one. It was little bit one leg, another leg," she says.

What type of injuries? "It was different injuries. I'm not going to talk about each one. Just injuries," comes the enigmatic reply.

It's a bit of a discouraging start, but luckily I've talked to Azarenka before and know you to pump the handle for a quite a while before anything comes out. Later, she'll reveal a little about how different things became after she hit the Top 10 last year and won Miami to catapult herself into the spotlight.

"I think for me it's a matter of people putting so much pressure on you, with all the media," she says. "What changed is people see me more as a favorite at different tournaments. Yeah, they do, but also when you play against somebody they want to beat you more because they have higher motivation.”

Her recent slump has taken her out of the Top 10. "I think one thing is to get there and another thing is to stay in there,” she says. “So for me it's a new learning experience, how to handle myself better because I'm still not at the level I want to be. I'm developing my game, I'm still developing physically and everything.”

Her temper remains a handicap during tight matches, but potent ball-striking skills and a competitive spirit means the Belarussian is still a bright prospect. "I'm trying to become a better player and a better, more mature person," she says. "I'm still looking forward to so many things. The rankings aren't the biggest thing for me."

Azarenka began working with coach Sam Sumyk this season, who previously worked with her doubles partner this week, Vera Zvonareva. Zvonareva, who coincidentally spent some time working with Azarenka's previous coach, is reportedly still feeling Smuyk's absence, so I asked Azarenka if he was working with both players this week.

There's a slight frown as Azarenka stakes out her territory. "No, it's just me, and Vera is by herself," she says firmly. "When we play doubles no one is coaching us, it's us who are playing, doing stuff."

How is the coaching going? "It's going well, everything is fine. We are there when it's good times, we are there when it's bad times, so you just work through it. . . . The most important thing for me is to be always healthy. If I'm healthy I know I can do good results."

Now based in Paris for training, she describes the tour as "sometimes like a zoo." "I like the competition and stuff, but it's tough to travel all the time,” she says. “To be on the tour you have to have also your own people, you know, who you can rely on, who you can talk to."

But despite the extra pressure she feels as a top player, there has been no inclination to keep her distance from other pros on the circuit. "I think it depends on your personality. If you're a person who doesn't like attention too much, then you do that," she says. "If you're a person who likes people, interested in having fun, then [you don't].

"I mean, tennis is my career, it's not my life. My life is my family, is my friends, is what I like to do. Tennis is just my job. Of course it's the priority, but it's not the most important thing in my life."

So it's just the media she doesn't like talking to? "No, this week has nothing to do with my fine, has nothing to do that I don't want to talk to the media," she bridles. "It's a big misunderstanding which nobody have no idea what happened. So people start to create some stories, and that's what I really hate about media, when people create stories without knowing anything."

So what did happen? "What happened is—there was bad timing. I don't like to go into it."

That clears up one thing, anyway: The interview is over.

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