Entertaining on the Inside

“I want to be an entertainer,” Victoria Azarenka said a few hours before her making her Madison Square Garden debut on Monday night. Those words may have come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the always intense, rarely lighthearted Vika in action, but give her credit for trying to loosen up for this exhibition. At least she didn’t walk on court the way she has so many times in the past, buried under a hoodie and drowning out the world with her iPod.

Azarenka may have wondered what kind of noise she was going to hear from the New York crowd. It has only been a month since she outraged U.S. sports fans and media by walking off the court just as this country’s new teen darling, Sloane Stephens, was about to serve to stay in their Australian Open semifinal. At the same time, the Big Apple is where Azarenka, after graciously accepting a heartbreaking defeat to Serena in the U.S. Open final last fall, had felt perhaps the most fan love of her tennis life.

As it happened, Vika got a nice round of applause—better than “polite,” but something less than “rousing”—that was rapidly superseded by the cheers for Serena, Juan Martin del Potro, and Rafael Nadal, the other three participants in the BNP Paribas Appearance Fee Hit and Giggle—I mean, Showdown. This level of appreciation seemed about right. As we know, Azarenka, despite winning two Grand Slams, spending more than a year at No. 1, and getting herself involved in plenty of dramatic matches, hasn't been an especially popular champion. By the time she left Melbourne, where she was dubbed, unfairly, “Cheaterenka,” her approval ratings had sunk to dangerously low levels.

The question is: Does this matter? The answer is mostly no, and a little bit yes. Azarenka, like all athletes, will be judged by her results and not her skills as a kind friend or a post-match dancer. If what she’s done so far in 2013—win a Slam, beat Serena for the first time in three years—is any indication of how the rest of her year will go, she’s going to be judged a success. On the other hand, tennis is better off when its top players, the ones who are on TV all the time, are crowd pleasers and big draws. Have you ever heard anyone say they wished Roger Federer had never come along and ruined the golden age of Lleyton Hewitt?

The problem, if you want to call it that, for Azarenka is that what makes her a great player is also what makes it hard for her to be a crowd-pleasing star. The most dominant aspect of her on-court personality is her inwardness. She dances to her own music before matches. She keeps the world at a distance with her hoodie and her headphones. In her dark leggings, she dresses for comfort rather than photogenic fashion. She talks often about how important her focus is to her game. Vika’s so focused that she sometimes seems to forget that the crowd or the other player is there—she does, as so many champs do, what’s best for her. Hence the Sloane Stephens incident. Hence the history of withdrawals from matches and events. Hence the way Azarenka, as she gets into her receiving stance, will raise her hand to slow down the server to her pace. Even after annoying Serena with that move in Doha, Vika unconsciously did the same thing a few times against her at the Garden on Monday night.

Azarenka is so inward-directed that an audience can be left cold by even her most impressive shotmaking displays. She doesn’t have a knack for getting a crowd on her side. She has been booed in the past for smashing racquets and throwing balls around in anger, and her trademark victory celebration—sticking her tongue out and wagging her index finger—is more defiant than joyous.

Beyond that, Azarenka is a little awkward when she has to come out of her shell. After someone shouted, “Will you marry me, Vika?” she laughed shyly and left the joking to her boyfriend, Redfoo, who pointed sternly in the suitor’s direction. The best gags that she could cook up were to play a few points left-handed, and let Redfoo serve against Serena. He pretty much stole the show with his mimed frustration at his various miscues. Compared with Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, who did something similar last year with her own celebrity boyfriend, Rory McIlroy, is a ham who soaks up attention wherever she can find it, and isn’t afraid to push the limits at an exo. (Not that anyone expected, or wanted, to see Vika stuff her shirt and skirt and pretend to be Serena...)

It appears that a real rivalry, and even a sort of workplace friendship, is starting between Azarenka and Williams; Serena says that Vika is one of the few women on tour that she's willing to “associate with.” Azarenka’s profile will only be raised by an association with Serena, and it could push her toward a greater popularity of her own. But despite what she said tonight, don’t expect Vika to be an entertainer anytime soon. Midway through the first set, she and Serena got into a little extended cat and mouse rally, the kind everyone likes to see at an exhibition. When Vika finally ended it with a nice little short-angle backhand volley, she turned toward the cheering audience for half a second and smiled. Then she looked back and noticed, to her annoyance, that the ball kid farthest from her hadn’t yet tossed the balls to the kid closest to her, the way he should have. The audience was enjoying the last point, but by the time Vika made it back to the baseline, she was scowling.