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'Pressure is overrated' says Azarenka

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Jonathan Overend | 08:05 UK time, Monday, 19 March 2012

Victoria Azarenka strides into the room with her usual confident air.

It's a room full of chairs and spotlights, a desk and a microphone at the front, where the players come for post-match press conferences. It's designed for more than the four of us.

The tall 22-year-old is taken aback. Instead of 20 or 30 middle-aged hacks ready to fire questions, there's me and the guy from the Palm Desert Bugle. Linda, the stenographer, is ready to transcribe for the benefit of folk off doing other things.

While some superstars would get a bit offended, Azarenka simply laughs, pulls out her mobile phone and takes a snap which she later posts to twitter. We all laugh. She is a very normal person who likes a giggle, a dance, and the odd game of tennis.

Two days earlier, our meeting was in the players lounge at Indian Wells. Fresh from a pummelling of Agnieska Radwanska, supposedly one of her nearest rivals, Azarenka was unsurprisingly in a jolly mood. She wanted to talk about the Olympics, the English accent, this and that. Eye contact throughout. No clock watching or agent loitering.

Victoria Azarenka

Azarenka collected her fourth trophy of 2012 in Indian Wells. Photo: Getty

Her agent is actually a former player, Meilen Tu, and a close-knit team including coach Sam Sumyk, fitness guru Mike Guevara and physio Jean Pierre Bruyere, who previously worked with both Tim Henman and Andy Murray, is rightly thanked publicly every time she wins a title.

Which is quite often right now.

What a start to the season with four back-to-back titles and 23 match wins. It's the best start to a season since Martina Hingis in 1997 and it's thanks to a brutal backhand and a much improved forehand. Depth and accuracy. Consistency.

Having worn a series of T-Shirts with cryptic logos throughout the California tournament, Azarenka paraded after the final a slogan which needed no interpretation: "Unstoppable".

That's what it feels like. Who is there to stop her? Certainly not Radwanska; certainly not Sharapova on the evidence of the finals in Melbourne and Indian Wells; perhaps Petra Kvitova? Maybe when Serena Williams returns? The challengers are hardly queuing up.

I put it to Azarenka that she looks and sounds comfortable with the world number one ranking. She appears set to stay there for some time.

"Well it doesn't hurt to be number one!" she tells BBC Sport. "But there is more responsibility and motivation for the other players to beat you."

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"I've got to stay humble and stay on my feet and keep doing what I did to get to number one".

The obvious thing to assume with Azarenka is that her breakthrough win in Melbourne, her first Grand Slam title, has given her confidence to dominate the way she is. She laughs and tries to explain.

"I think confidence is overrated! Everybody says, 'You're winning on confidence', but it is invisible, you cannot play with it, it's not something you can control. How do you use it?"

So does she believe in pressure, another great abstract element to sport?

"Pressure is something that is also overrated! You can bring it on yourself, somebody can say a few things and you feel pressure.

"For me the best word is adaptation. You adapt to any situation, you adapt to dealing with pressure, confidence, your opponent. You adapt, you try to be better. That is the most appropriate word at this level."

For all her qualities, Azarenka is not without her detractors. Some don't like the finger wagging celebration, others feel she makes a meal of things on the court. And, of course, there's the shrieking/grunting.

Questions about the issue were curtailed by WTA officials this week, on the presumption that the subject has been firmly put to bed. Far from it. It remains a live issue, even at the tour's top table.

On the morning of the Indian Wells final, the organisers were stating their opposition to the noise - not just from Azarenka but Sharapova too. And crucially Steve Simon, the BNP Paribas Open tournament director, who sits on the board of the WTA, revealed that the issue is "on every agenda".

Over breakfast with visiting reporters, Simon told us: "It's pretty hard to tell somebody at this point, 'You can't grunt any more.' This isn't new. I think if you ever did put it in [the rules, not to grunt] you'd have to start it down in challengers and satellites and slowly work it in."

Is it a subject of debate on the board? "Oh yeah. It's on every agenda. We sit there and have this conversation."

Honestly? It doesn't bother me that much. I think anyone who turns up to the tennis everyday becomes immune to it. But I know it puts people off coming to watch players like Azarenka which is a huge shame. The Australian Open women's final this year wasn't a sell out. This is where the sport has a problem.

But, as Azarenka constantly says, she's done it since the age of eight. It happens naturally. She says she can't stop it.

The casual fan may be struggling to warm to the Belarusian but those who study the game, and certainly study the form, can put the noise to one side and just admire the ongoing achievements of the "unstoppable" Victoria Azarenka.

On to Miami....

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Nicely written article, informality of the meeting, building to enlightenment with the concept of adaption over pressure, then lead balloon when ”grunting” is mentioned.

    Let’s hope that “grunting” isn’t an essential part of adaption.

  • Comment number 2.

    Who cares if people are struggling to warm to her? Serena Williams is one of the whiniest, least sporting players in living memory. 13 singles majors says it all, compared to the still impressive but substantially fewer seven singles majors won by her sister, who is a far more likeable character. Besides, Azarenka is certainly not without her supporters. True, a lot of them are probably men who fancy her, but the same goes for female fans hollering Nadal when he takes his shirt off. The bottom line is that, for all the 'warmth' of Wozniacki, Jankovic, and Safina (well, maybe forget the last one), they were all underwhelming world #1's, at least on the major stage. Azarenka has earned her #1 spot, and long may her reign continue. We're lucky to now have the #1 ranking contested between two current Grand Slam champions (Azarenka and Kvitova) and a resurgent Sharapova. All of them would be worthy of the accolade, which is more than you can say for some of the recent contenders.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Grunting" I'd be prepared to deal with, mostly though it is closer to screeching. I quite like watching tennis but I simply turn it off if I am going to be subjected to this constant irritating noise. I can't be the only person that thinks like this. Surely it has to be damaging the value of the sport to sponsors.

  • Comment number 4.

    Its a shame because everything I read about Azarenka sounds like she's a great champion and great to watch, and I'd like to watch her more, but I physically can't stand watching/listening to a women's match with all the shrieking. I would watch them on mute, but I miss the commentry then. Someone please invent a solution!

  • Comment number 5.

    Grunting itself is not much of a problem - But I have seen female tennis players (usually whilst under pressure in a game) overuse/amplify their grunt quite blatantly to put off the opposition. This is disgraceful and they should be docked points. Sharapova springs to mind

  • Comment number 6.

    4. At 10:06 19th Mar 2012, Stotty15 wrote:
    I would watch them on mute, but I miss the commentry then. Someone please invent a solution!
    ==========================================
    You already have the solution - mute the sound; unless, of course, you don't have the "adaptability" to enjoy tennis by just watching it and allowing your own mental processes to decide what is happening.

    I've had to do this over the last 5 years for all sports, having moved to Poland and not picked up a full enough understanding of the language.

    It is amazing how soon you won't be missing the endless drivel, especially during the F1 and the football.

    Ideally, I'd like a way to mute the commentary and would be perfectly happy to put up with the crowd noise and the 'grunting'..... Someone please invent that solution!

  • Comment number 7.

    So two people for the Azarenka press conference? Was there assigned seats or could you chose where to sit? :) .. Azarenka's current form and run is very impressive. However, as have already been eluded to by another poster, it's very difficult to 'warm' to Azarenka. The constant grunting, screaming, whatever you prefer to call it. The final must have been a decibel night mare and if the US had decent 'Health and Safety' rules, could well have been stopped due to risk for hearing damage (I imagine).

  • Comment number 8.

    Nice article; quite jealous of anyone who get's basically a one-on-one press conference with Viki!
    She's done really well this year, but we probably shouldn't forget going into the Aussie open we were looking at the list of players who could win it and there was a lot. I personally considered Serena, Wozniaki, Stosur, Li Na, Kvitova, Azarkena, Zvonerava and Sharapova. You could have made a case for any of them and given Azarkena's grand slam record hers would have arguably been the weakest.
    Incredibly, I think now we're really dealing with two separate questions; 1) who can overtake her as number one and 2) who can beat her in a slam.
    I think realistically only Kvitova can get ahead of her in the competition to be number one (Williams, even if fit, will never play enough events).
    However, in a slam, it's completely different. I don't think even playing as well as she is now she'd have beaten Stosur in the US and we know that on clay she could quite easily lose to someone who can play the surface like Schiavone. Then, as impressed as I am to see her laugh off pressure so far, going into Wimbledon as world number one will almost certainly feel completely different to anything she's experienced so far!

  • Comment number 9.

    I enjoy women's tennis to a point, but never would I watch it other than slams and the only reason I watch it then is because they play whilst the men are playing. Why they get paid the same for less work and less entertainment is a mystery to me.

    The grunting, well screeching and screaming really, has made it virtually unwatchable for me. Turning the sound down doesn't work, sorry it's only Johnny Macs commentary that makes it remotely interesting to watch.

  • Comment number 10.

    'Pressure is over-rated' yet she chokes in every Grand Slam? Something doesn't quite add up.

  • Comment number 11.

    I have been thoroughly impressed with Azarenka, and it would be fair to say she is doing a Djokovic this season. Particularly, more than her game (she always had it in within her to beat the best players), mentally she is so much more stronger, again very similar to Djokovic's transformation last year. She doesn't seem to be fazed or frustrated when she is down (breaking rackets or mumbling constantly), a classic example would be against Clijsters in AO semis, where I thought she played extremely well. Perhaps that's why this renewed sense of confidence as well as the scoffing of pressure as being 'over-rated', but the statement is truly justified considering how well she is playing at the moment. I firmly believe women's tennis is in a great state right now, with multiple slam champions and numerous contenders for majors, so not a hint of predictability. Though yes, I think Azarenka can go on dominate up until at least the French Open. She has played extremely well on clay in the past, and I think she can win the French Open. Realistically, the only players who have the game to beat her are Kvitova or Sharapova (though she really needs to work on cutting her unforced errors dramatically and be a bit more patient), and probably on a very good day, Stosur (although Azarenka would seriously need to have a very bad off-day). Azarenka could win 3 grand slams this year, she loves the court conditions in the U.S, but I think she still needs to develop her game for grass (mainly her serve) if she is to win Wimbledon. She is deservedly the number 1 player without a doubt, and it is great for women's tennis to have players such as her and Wozniacki, who are funny, charming, and great ambassadors at the top of the game.

    Finally, the issue of grunting. Yes it is painful at times and a put off to many people, but I don't mind it either. The likes of Sharapova and Azarenka have been doing this since they were 7-8 years old, and as Azarenka said at the AO, she started doing it since, as a child, she was very weak, and had to work harder in order to invest more in her groundstrokes, and its an intrinsic part of her game. They aren't doing it on purpose!! I can only hope it doesn't affect the sport, but as Jonathan pointed out with the AO final, it clearly seems to have.

  • Comment number 12.

    How do you distinguish between those that are putting it on and those that simply do it because of the effort they are exerting?

    I don't get the feeling that players like Nadal make noises to put his opponents off, just when he hits a particularly venomous forehand.

    I think with others it is a lot more obvious that they are using it to gain some sort of advantage (i.e. putting off the other player) - Azarenka's hoots don't seem like something you'd naturally start doing as soon as you hit a tennis ball...

  • Comment number 13.

    If they found a technological solution to vuvuzelas at the WC, would think someone would find a way to mute the truly astounding screaming that goes on in most WTA matches. Maybe too late for the tennis powers to do anything about this abhorrent behavior, but if fans keep voting with their wallets, they may have to take the plunge in spite of their cowardice. Wonder if the the boys at Wimbledon will be willing to take this on? After all, they do still enforce the 'white only' rule.

  • Comment number 14.

    Great interview, thanks Jonathan. I have been waiting a couple of years for Azarenka to break through but never thought it would be in this astonishing fashion. Love the modernity of her approach - the earphones coming on court, the tweeting : makes the male players seem very boring.

    As for the grunting this is a debate I am so sick of and have long thought is just another example of British sexism aimed at women in sport: is it any wonder we have no top players? I bet a lot of the people who complain actually watch that absurd sport Formula One, but do you hear complaints about the noise that Button/Hamilton make? Do you heck (being polite for moderation purposes).

  • Comment number 15.

    I've seen Azarenka warm up/train on the practice courts at some tournaments and she doesn't grunt hardly at all. Azarenka is naturally not likeable but is talented, sometimes you can't have everything in life. Once Kvitova is back to full fitness she will give her a run for her money, but Serena too I wouldn't be surprised if she is the first to beat her this year! I for one can't wait for Miami! COME ON STOSUR! A true lady of the WTA tour.

  • Comment number 16.

    Some of you are just silly. Unless you are watching a match being commented on By McEnroe Martina or some of the Real pros or any of the Brits! One has to turn down the gross amount of inane garbage spewing fro the mouths of the commentators.
    I turn the sound down just to keep my sanity.
    As far as Victoria goes, she is taking womens tennis to another place. Zen. She has with the above comments transcended the illusion of pressure and all that. Keep it simple. ENJOY YOUR LIFE! If all I had to do was complain about grunting I think I'd have to take a look at my life and see that I was clearly missing something beautiful.
    Good luck haters.
    AND all Good Vibes to the New Master Of womens tennis on earth
    Victoria Azarenka!!!!!!!!! Keep rocking!!

  • Comment number 17.

    Delighted the grunting question is topical. I have loved tennis all my life, but simply cannot watch (listen) to some of the women. Surely, in the entertainment world you're meant to get paid for selling tickets and as such, I'd like to know how many tuned in to watch Djokovic v Nadal at the Oz Open, and Azarenka v Sharapova - the players should then get paid accordingly. Perhaps that will inhibit the screaming, so people like me can enjoy watching women's tennis again.

  • Comment number 18.

    I don't mind the grunting/shrieking at all - quite like it in fact! I have read a few things previously which suggest there is a good reason for it - something to do with helping you to channel your energy so that it all goes into the shot and other parts of your body are relieved of tension at the same time. I think it is fairly common in some other sports eg the throwing disciplines in athletics. I can understand that there is potential for abusing it given the rule in tennis regarding players causing a deliberate hindrance to other players during a point but to be honest I would rather this rule was changed rather than a new rule created to stop the grunter/shriekers. Let them all shout out or bang their racket off the ground at the right moment - I think that would add to the entertainment!
    I'm also tired of hearing the argument that if a player doesn't do something in practice then they don't need to do it in a match. Grunting or shrieking seems to be related to creating added intensity to a shot - is it really such a shock that a player doesn't always want to create this intensity during practice? Just look at any of the players in practice and you will see many differences - how hard they hit, how long they take to prepare before a serve, what they wear, how often they take breaks, how many balls they hold in their hand etc.
    Also I saw it mentioned above that the AO final wasn't a sell out - I'm not convinced this was directly related to the grunting or shrieking of the two players involved. I don't want to get into it here but it's not too hard to come up with some other reasons that these two players were not the preferred finalists for many spectators. And isn't it nice and convenient that we can use the noise that they make to somehow devalue their achievements?

  • Comment number 19.

    23-0 match winning streak in the mens game is nothing now but in the womens game it is like a miricle,given the consistancy or the complete lack of it.it is unreal.i dont particulary like her or her attitude but her consistancy is unheralded since henin.her game is striking resemblence of djokovic but she is a homeless man version,whereas murray is a poor mans version(i love murray but it is true),no real waeknesses(womens standard anyway) and mentally in it.but my personal opinion kvitova is a better player,when both at their best kvitova wins,she won 4 out of 4 last year v azarenka all in important matches(fedcup,madrid mandatory final,wimbledon semi,wta championship final).but her consistancy is a completely different story.i personaly think serena is the best followed by aza and kvitova,sharapova is a 1 dimensional loser

  • Comment number 20.

    @10. Choking in every grand slam except the one she won this year you mean?

  • Comment number 21.

    So Azarenka wants to stay humble now that she is no.1? By wearing a t-shirt with the 'Unstoppable' slogan is the way to go...

    On the grunting, players say they can't 'help it'. I'm sure if the WTA/ITF starts docking points / sets, it would stop pretty quickly.

  • Comment number 22.

    She deserves it! By contrast, Andy Murray may need careful or a bit worried about his chance, even with Lendl who is not GOD!!! ...

 

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