Australian Open 2019: Weighed down by off-court struggles, Victoria Azarenka shows steel and substance in first-round loss

Do you ever wonder why professional athletes go through so much just for the sake of sport? Why they put their bodies on the line and fight till their breath runs out, just so that they can lay their hands on a piece of silverware?

It’s not something that has an obvious answer. And as it turns out, the athletes themselves don’t always know why they do it either.

“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, and sometimes I wonder why I go through them.”

That’s what Victoria Azarenka said at her press conference after losing to Laura Siegemund in the Australian Open first round on Tuesday. She was speaking in response to being asked what has given her the strength to overcome the challenges that have come her way.

 Australian Open 2019: Weighed down by off-court struggles, Victoria Azarenka shows steel and substance in first-round loss

Victoria Azarenka lost in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday. AFP

The words were sobering and eye-opening enough on their own. But when you consider the fact that Azarenka uttered them in a broken voice, initially struggling to lift her eyes but eventually fixing the questioner with a piercing, tear-filled stare, you can’t help but feel a pang go through your chest about the unfairness of it all.

It used to be a custom earlier to think of professional athletes as a privileged lot. But with channels of communication getting more open with each passing year, we have come to learn that there’s a lot more to it than the glitz of the floodlights and the rasping cheers of the million-plus fans.

Not all superstars live a life of privilege. Some, like Azarenka, grow up in adversity, get to the top by giving their heart out on the field, and then go back to fighting adversity despite having everything they could have asked for.

Three years ago, at an Azarenka press conference at the 2016 Australian Open, one was stunned to hear her talk about how she sometimes had to go without food while growing up in Minsk, all because of tennis. If the time of a match clashed with the (free) lunchtime, she had to forego eating altogether because she couldn’t afford to buy lunch on her own.

“The pressure right now is to go out there and face a big opponent? That’s okay. But when you’re, like, hungry and you gotta go play and you have absolutely nothing, that is big pressure,” she had said back then.

Azarenka was close to being on top of the world back then, so it was tempting to believe she had put those struggles behind her for good. She completed the Indian Wells-Miami double a few weeks later, joining a very elite group of players in history by doing so, and looked set to regain the No 1 ranking she had last held in 2013.

But then something happened which took the entire world by surprise. In July that year, Azarenka announced she was pregnant with her first child. She took the rest of the year off, and in December 2016, she and her boyfriend Billy McKeague welcomed the birth of their son Leo.

Of course, childbirth is no longer seen as a calamitous event in a female athlete’s career. Modern advancements in health and recovery have enabled women to return within months of giving birth, and the likes of Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams have shown that it is even possible to climb back to the summit of the sport with a toddler in tow.

Except that it wasn’t as straightforward for Azarenka; it never has been for her. In July 2017, she and McKeague separated, and within a month of that, they got embroiled in an ugly custody battle for Leo.

Azarenka had only just begun her comeback to the tour at that point, having played her first two tournaments as a mother at Mallorca and Wimbledon, but the specifics of the court case meant that Leo was disallowed from leaving the state of California. Unwilling to travel without her son, Azarenka was forced to skip the rest of the year, again resetting her career back to zero.

At the start of 2018, she scored a minor win in the legal battle, with a California judge ruling that the case should be heard in Belarus rather than the US. Azarenka promptly made a full return to the WTA tour, competing in most big tournaments from Indian Wells 2018 onwards. But success was hard to come by; apart from her semifinal run in Miami, she failed to make much of an impression in any event.

Now she has registered back-to-back first-round losses — in Auckland and Melbourne — at the start of 2019, and it is looking increasingly unclear whether she will ever return to her pre-2017 form. The spectre of Leo’s well-being and safety has to be hanging over her head at all times, and that anxiety is showing on the court too.

Against Siegemund, Azarenka had several chances to put the match to bed. She wasn’t at her breathtaking best at any point, but she was still playing well enough to go up by a set and a break. But there was always something — her own indecisiveness, Siegemund’s shot-making, the pressure of winning a match in Melbourne for the first time since 2016 – that kept holding her back.

When she failed to capitalise on a single one of the three break points she had at 2-4 in the third set, we knew the writing was on the wall. But we should have actually known her fate well before that, because the trademark Azarenka footwork — the one unique thing that made her such a great champion in the early 2010s — was nowhere to be seen in the second half of the match.

Azarenka has never been the quickest mover on the court, but she has always been one of the most balanced. She doesn’t take giant strides as she runs side to side or back and forth; instead, she takes a million tiny steps, which enables her to hit the ball with explosive momentum and perfect positioning. But it’s easy to see the flaw in that method; if she’s off even slightly with the timing on her footwork, she’s vulnerable to being completely out of position.

That’s what we saw over and over again as she kept missing routine backhands in the third set. She just never seemed in the right position to hit the ball, and so couldn’t finish points efficiently even when she was in complete control of them.

She was very blunt about her performance in her press conference, saying, “It was very obvious that my game was not there”. She also said that she’s been hitting the ball really well in practice but was finding it hard to replicate that in actual match situations, for reasons she herself wasn’t sure about.

“I think that happens to a lot of players, honestly. It is what it is. You have to go through with that; you have to go through struggles sometimes,” she said while trying to explain (and seemingly also understand herself) why her matchplay wasn’t up to the mark.

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to guess that her off-court situation — the long-drawn custody battle, the demands of motherhood, the hunt for motivation — has been weighing on her mind. She’s trying to her hit way out of her troubles, even if her feet aren’t obeying her commands, but that’s not working against opponents of the quality of Siegemund.

“I don’t think, sitting here today, (that) I failed. But I am struggling. Failing is when you give up and you don’t try again. But I am struggling. If I have to continue to struggle to get out of that, if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I’m gonna do,” she added.

If there’s one thing we know about Azarenka, it is that she doesn’t do half-measures. When she wins, she lets everyone know just how hard she worked for it, hollering at the top of her voice and fist-pumping in decidedly violent fashion. And when things aren’t going her way, she is no stranger to smashing her racquet and letting the tears – of anger, not sadness — stain her cheeks.

Just how tough will going the whole hog be for a woman in her position though? Last month, she looked thrilled at the prospect of traveling to Melbourne with Leo, saying that she would “take him to the zoo so he can see all the cool animals” and that being a mum was her “No 1 priority”. And now, she looks heartbroken at having lost a match, despite the fact that she has won hundreds in the past. It’s clearly not easy juggling so many things in your life, all of which are huge priorities.

And yet we know she will keep at it. She will train like a woman possessed on the court, and try to be the best mother she can be off it. Why? Because it is the struggle that has made Azarenka who she is.

As she tried to speak through the tears at the end of her press conference, steeling herself to go on despite having the power to leave the room, she left no one in doubt about what the struggle means to her.

“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, and sometimes I wonder why I go through them. But I think they’re going to make me stronger. I want to believe that, and I’m going to work hard for it,” she said, her voice getting stronger with each syllable.

That, in essence, is what makes a professional athlete — going on even when you don’t know why, with just a vague hope that it’s going to make you stronger. We may not understand it, but that’s probably because we don’t know how it feels to be wired like Victoria Azarenka.

Or in other words, to be wired like a champion.

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 09:52:56 IST