Tuesday August 3rd, 2010

A few years back, there was a dog in my neighborhood who barked at everything. Barked at air, barked at life, barked at the price of eggs. All day long. I love animals, but this hound was driving me nuts, so I went on a search-and-silence mission.

When I located the house in question, there was nobody home. It was a run-down, abandoned-looking place, and there was the dog, prowling some overgrown grass behind a chain-link fence. As I approached, the dog fell silent. Seemed delighted to see me. And I melted right down. Seems the sweet-faced creature just wanted some company.

I'm not sure how this all ties in with Victoria Azarenka, but that dog came to mind Sunday as she won the Bank of the West tournament in my own back yard at Stanford University. I had made up my mind to despise Azarenka, for life, because of her attitude and her petulance and, most of all, her godawful shrieking on every point. By the end of the tournament, I'd been won over.

It may well come to pass that Stanford marked a breakthrough for the 21-year-old Azarenka, both on and off the court. She was calm, composed and relentless in her 6-4, 6-1 dismantling of Maria Sharapova in the final. Absolutely steamrolling to the finish, Azarenka drilled groundstrokes to perfection while Sharapova, having fought heartily for a spell, almost clumsily fell apart.

Sharapova needed that win, badly. She was right on the verge of her biggest title of the year, a momentum-building result heading into the U.S. Open, and Azarenka stopped her cold. The aftermath, however, was just as surprising.

Going into this tournament, I was hardly alone in my disdain for Azarenka. Aside from her unbecoming on-court temper tantrums over the years, she was a real pill in press conferences, clearly hating the idea and seldom bothering to even make eye contact. Just last week, esteemed journalist Peter Bodo captured her well, writing on his blog that Azarenka "is usually in a snit over something or other, unless she's busy being in turmoil."

Apparently, someone in the WTA Tour hierarchy got to Azarenka after the French Open, where she had blown off the obligatory interview after a dreadful first-round loss to Gisela Dulko. Sources say she submitted herself to media counseling during her post-Wimbledon break, and the results at Stanford were dramatic. True, she'd just scored her biggest win in more than a year (Miami '09), but there wasn't a hint of tension in her face. She was warm and engaging, even funny at times. She smiled easily and seemed in no hurry to depart.

She talked mostly about confidence and self-belief, and I couldn't help but recall the difference between Sunday's match and Azarenka's quarterfinal against Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Leading 6-4, 4-0, Azarenka was apparently cruising to glory, but as soon as Serena hit some mood-altering shots and revealed some newfound energy, Azarenka collapsed in a swirl of anger and self-pity. There wasn't a hint of that at Stanford, where she crushed a couple of very hard hitters, Marion Bartoli and Samantha Stosur, before taking care of Sharapova.

We'll see how it all plays out for Azarenka, but she has put herself at the center of the U.S. Open conversation. As for on-court shrieking, the Sharapova match was a real beauty, pitting one of the post-Monica Seles howlers against the creative new breed. I got several e-mails from fans who tried to watch the match on television, but angrily bailed out after a few games, unable to withstand such an affront to the sport's dignity.

I'm not sure how I got through it myself, actually. It became almost comical at times, as if the two players were kidding. When a car alarm went off nearby, it served as a soothing reprieve. I imagined parents lecturing their tennis-playing daughters in the stands: "If you ever start making noises like that, I'll burn your racket and you'll be trying out for rugby."

Longtime tour follower Matt Cronin noted that when Azarenka played Bartoli in the quarters, her noises "could be heard from the far parking lot through a grove of thick eucalyptus trees." Bartoli made a point of mentioning it afterward, saying, "It's difficult to play against those kinds of players. I think it's fine to grunt sometimes when you make an effort, but sometimes it's just so loud. It's hard to focus on the other side of the net."

Answering Bartoli's charge, Azarenka said, "It's something that you hear so many players do. Sometimes they grunt and sometimes they don't, but for me that's how I practice and that's how I play. There are some players who like to fake injuries, who look like they're dying out there, and when the point starts they're running for every ball. That's part of the game. You try to win however you can." And she added, with a smile, "When I was a kid, I needed that extra power, so that's how it came up."

Since I'm suddenly so inclined to give Azarenka the benefit of the doubt, I'm discounting the notion of her shrieking for effect, to throw off her opponent. I'm saying she quite fancies the exotic birds of Brazil, and after conducting an exhausting study, she came up with that lingering, warbling sound that seems to last right up to her opponent's next shot.

I think you'll agree that when it comes to Brazilian birds, there are some mighty fine choices:

The Bearded Bellbird

The Hyacinthine Macaw

The Ash-Throated Crake

The Horned Screamer

The White-Naped Jay

Call me an old speckled hen, but I'll go with the crake. I'm just a sucker that way.

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