Victoria Azarenka once revealed that it had it not been for being sent out of her homeland at an early age to a strange country where she knew almost no-one, that she might not have developed a hard outer shell and have become a more trusting and accessible person.
But that was not the Belarusian’s fate. Her parents believed that she could never develop properly as a tennis player, so they sent her to the state of Arizona in the United States, where she lived with the family of ice hockey player Nikolai Khabibulin and rapidly developed her game under the eyes of coach Antonio Van Grichen of Portugal.
But what she did not develop was a keen sense of the world around her and how her actions might affect others – off court and on. Attention was paid to her and her alone, and not surprisingly, without a strong authority figure around telling her that other people’s feelings and careers were just as important as hers, she developed a reputation amongst some as being an occasionally selfish and fragile person.
Up until mid-2010, she had turned off the international tennis media to the point where she was rarely requested for interviews – even in the second weeks of Grand Slams when most players are sought after. Even after victories she could be sullen, give one-word answers, never make eye contact and take even the most innocent queries as an affront.
But then she decided to come out of her shell and show the world at least a portion of who she is – a tough, non-nonsense person with a normal amount of insecurities.
“I actually regret that stuff a lot because I could have turned around a few things and people getting to know me better, not starting now, and that would have been more in my favour,” she told me back in the mid summer of 2011.
“The Belarusians have a different mentality. We are Eastern Europeans, it was part of the USSR and we were closed and didn't have that openness. You learn, and when you start to understand it, it’s actually exciting.”
Like many other elite players before her, there was a time when she was purely combative in the face of controversy. Former No 1s such as Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams have battled back when one or more of their actions were called into question.
Azarenka has too, but on Thursday after a medical timeout she took up 5-4 in the second set against Sloane Stephens was called into question and she was accused by some analysts of gamesmanship, she stood up and answered every question that was fired at her without the hint of a sneer.
She said that she would never cheat Stephens, whom she has known since the 19-year-old was “a little kid.” She admitted that she should have taken the medical timeout two games earlier and added that it was ‘her bad’. She said that the choking or panic that she discussed on court immediately after the match was the result of not knowing why she couldn’t breathe due to a rib injury.
She did not, as the usually cooperative yet controlling Maria Sharapova once did at a Grand Slam, try to shut down a line of questioning about alleged on-court coaching the minute she got to the podium, or as Jennifer Capriati once did, hold a public press conference to read a letter about her past transgressions so that she would never have to answer questions about it again.
She met with the press on Thursday, and once again on Friday, and whether you believe her explanation or not, at the very least she put herself out there and answered everything single query.
“I'm being really honest here, what I'm talking about, she said. “So I'm just glad that I'm here to make everything clear.”
But it’s not just the media that have had problems with her. Early on in her career, she developed a reputation for calling the trainer too much and retiring too frequently.
Back in 2009 at the Beijing tournament during a three-set victory for Sharapova, the Russian thought that Azarenka was faking an injury during a medical timeout and loudly asked the umpire: “is her last name Jankovic?”, referring to her junior rival who has reputation for excessively using medical timeouts.
According to now coach Sam Sumyk, that chatter around the locker room hurt Azarenka more than anything, so she vowed not to call for the trainer unless she felt it was nearly a life or death situation.
But despite her efforts, she has had a hard time keeping herself out of hot water. A few weeks after she won the 2012 Australian Open, she was facing Agnieszka Radwanska in the Doha semis, whom she knows pretty well as they are around the same age of 23, and both at the time had Caroline Wozniacki as one of their best friends.
Radwanska thought that Azarenka was faking injuries and didn't need to given the high level that she was playing at. Azarenka went on to win the tournament.
Radwanska said she surprised at what Azarenka did and was a little disappointed.
“Maybe she won the match or the tournament, but she lost a lot of respect because I don't think those kind of behaviour is a good image for women's tennis," Radwanska said. "
Just like she did on Thursday in her Australian Open semifinal victory over Stephens, Azarenka denied that she was employing gamesmanship and said that she still considered herself to be on friendly terms with Radwanska.
“For me is not about having friends, it’s about being civilised and a good person. It’s a matter of being respectful,” Azarenka once said.
What Azarenka now has in common with the likes of McEnroe, Connors, Capriati and Serena is she that speaks her mind. It’s extremely rare to hear a player admit to choking right after a match on court in front of thousands of fans, but that’s what she did against Stephens.
“For me it's important to feel myself,” she said. “The main key is I never lie to myself. If I feel nervous, I'll say I feel nervous. If I feel relaxed, I'll say I feel relaxed. So I feel this is important to be honest with you yourself and never be afraid of your feelings.”
Last summer at Wimbledon, she showed just how unafraid she was to let her feelings be known in public. The WTA had come to an agreement with the Grand Slams and the ITF to try and tone down on-court grunting. She’s considered to be one of the WTA's loudest grunters, but had declined to discuss the issue. When approached and told what the tour’s plans were, she sharply responded: "Tell them, good luck with that."
What all the aforementioned No. 1s were been able to do, and what Azarenka has yet to show she can also do, is to have consistent Grand Slam success under fire. McEnroe yelled and screamed his way to seven Grand Slam singles titles. Connors cursed his way to eight. Serena, who has been on a charm offensive for a year and a half now, has 15. Capriati, who never cared about being charming but did like to be liked, collected three.
Azarenka has one Slam title, and will go into Saturday night’s final against Li Na as the favourite as she has beaten her the last four times they have faced off. She also admitted she needed to calm down and relieve herself of the stress that Thursday’s controversy caused.
Her support team is doing everything it can to get her into a positive headspace. That team includes: her coach Sumyk; his wife, the former player Melien Tu, who is also her manager; her agent, John Tobias; her newly-hired press officer Benito Perez-Bardillo (who also works for Rafael Nadal) and yes, her now good ‘friend’ the pop singer RedFoo, who is on site.
Win or lose the final, Azarenka has pledged to be herself. Like her on-court behaviour or not, she will continue to put herself out there.
“You don’t want to be fake,” she’s said.
“There are a lot of players who are made up and they have this image they have to follow. For me, I think, ‘Screw that,’ I am who I am’.”