Tuesday August 28th, 2012

Victoria Azarenka is more than just the top-ranked player in the world and No. 1 seed in the 2012 U.S. Open women's draw. She won the last major singles title played on a hard court in the midst of a 26-match win streak to start the 2012 season. Still, when Azarenka played her U.S. Open first-round match on Monday, she did so under something other than a spotlight. Banished to Louis Armstrong Stadium, she played before stands that were only half-filled, most of the fans having scattered on the outer courts.

We had morning coffee with Azarenka recently, and there was plenty to talk about. Tanned, rested, and fresh back from the Hamptons, here's Vika....

SI.com: So, let's talk London first. Was it as fun for you as a player as it seemed to be?

Victoria Azarenka: Well, it was a little bit weird and different playing at the Wimbledon venue, playing the Olympics, and the first three matches didn't really feel like the energy of the Olympic games. For me, I started to feel more from the quarterfinals, all that excitement, and that competitiveness and spirit which was later on. It was fun, it was just different because we were pretty far away from all the action, pretty much. And, it felt more like a tennis tournament. But, as I said, in the end, it really felt like something different, and a special moment when you know, definitely, you win a medal.

SI.com: And you took gold in mixed doubles, too. So you've been hung over for the last two weeks, basically. That's why you haven't played?

Azarenka: No, I don't drink. I went to play in Montreal, but there was such a quick turn around, that with the grass and hard courts, it was just too quick -- the body couldn't handle it. It was a lot of tennis for me, this summer.

SI.com: We've been friends for a long time, so I need to ask you this. When you were at the Opening Ceremonies, and you saw Max Mirnyi carrying the flag, did you not want to just grab it, and say, "You're a nice guy and all, but I'm number one. I won a Grand Slam singles title about six months ago?"

Azarenka: I don't know about that. Actually, I didn't go to the Opening Ceremonies this year. I went [to] the one that was in Beijing. ... I think Max did really well; he was a proud Belarusian flag-bearer. So, I think it was kind of nice to just see all of our athletes go in together. For me it was a special moment to see how, in one night to see everybody from all over the world, kind of, come together, and it's really peaceful.

SI.com: Have you been back to Belarus yet?

Azarenka: No, I haven't been back to Belarus, and I don't even have my medals with me. My mom took them home to make sure that nobody steals them, and I don't lose them.

SI.com: Everyone always gets asked, "Where are your medals?" when they win a medal, and no one ever has a good story. They're always like, "in a drawer, or "my mom took them." Nobody ever has a great story.

Azarenka: I will just say that my mom took them; I will not say where I'm going to keep them, because everybody always says, "oh, I'm going to keep them on top of my bed," or, "I'm going to keep it in the cans," or, "in some drawer." So, somebody can just come and steal it. I will not say where I'm keeping it. It's definitely going to be with me.

SI.com: Alright, keep that to yourself. You are from Belarus, you have a base in Monte Carlo...

Azarenka: Yeah, it's both, kind of. Every time I have a chance I would go back to Belarus, because I don't really spend a lot of time there, but if I'm training or something, I would go more often to Monaco.

SI.com: And you're out of Arizona?

Azarenka: Yeah, I've been out for a pretty long time -- almost three years.

SI.com: So, how does it work with -- you come to Montreal, you decide it's just too fast a turn around, you've got almost three weeks before the Open. Do you just live out of a suitcase for three weeks, basically?

Azarenka: Well, [the] suitcase always gets fuller, and fuller in the States, because I, kind of, like to go shopping. The sales here, it just kills your credit card, which, actually, I'm lucky to be a partner with American Express.

SI.com: Sponsor plug! Well-played. That's savvy, that's good.

Azarenka: No, it's true! Every girl likes to shop, and when this makes it easier, a little bit, it always helps. But, in Montreal, I came and I tried to play. It was just getting worse, a little bit every day, and I decided to save a little bit of my body for the big one. So, after that we went to the Hamptons, and I started my rehab a little bit, and I started training once it was better.

SI.com: You rented a house?

Azarenka: Yeah, we rented a house. I'd never been there, and I always wanted to visit. It's a beautiful place.

SI.com: Oh, come on. It's expensive and pretentious.

Azarenka: I would say it's expensive. [As for] pretentious -- it's up to you if you pay attention. But, if you're there with your people, with your company, it makes it really beautiful.

SI.com: Do you like New York?

Azarenka: I love New York. It's one of my favorite cities. I think the energy here is great. You have absolutely everything you want; you have different cultures, different people, and I think it's one city that's got it all.

SI.com: So, let's talk about the Open. You feel good going into the last major of the year?

Azarenka: Yeah, of course. I'm excited. You're always a little bit nervous before the start of the tournament, especially now [before the draw] you don't even know who you'll play. But, I came a little bit earlier than before to the city, and I'm going to train. So, I'm really looking forward to it. I don't think about my matches before they are happening.

SI.com: You're not a draw-looker?

Azarenka: Never.

SI.com: Players say that. How does that work? You literally show up the day of your match, and whoever walks out there...

Azarenka: No, of course my coach tells me who I play. Every time we discuss it in plans, I just don't like to look too much.

SI.com: Do you watch video? Do you scout?

Azarenka: Well, I pretty much know all the players. If [there is] somebody I don't know, I would like to get to know who that is, [or] at least how the other person looks. But, I'm not too big on that.

SI.com: Do you want to preview the men's draw with me? Who's your pick?

Azarenka: Wow, that's tough. I think Roger is kind of in his second career. He put on an 11th gear or something. He's playing amazing right now, but with Andy winning a gold medal, I think it's going to give him a huge boost for the Open. I think it's one of the tournaments where he performs the best. So, I would be choosing between them two.

SI.com: Who's a sleeper? Who's the one where you walk by the practice court, or you run into them, or even play them in mixed, and you say, "wow, that guy's really talented?" Players you love -- do you remember Fabrice Santoro?

Azarenka: Yeah, of course. The Magician.

SI.com: Yeah, The Magician, exactly. Is there someone like that now, though, that you admire?

Azarenka: Well, I really admire Roger. I think he's a great athlete -- the best there's ever been. Not only on the court; I like how he is off the court. He's very professional all the time, and very respectful, which is one of two really good qualities to see in a top athlete.

SI.com: So, let's talk women's side. We'll leave the No. 1 seed out of this discussion for a little while. What are we up to now, seven events? Seven different winners?

Azarenka: You know, I think I'm the worst player to talk to about statistics.

SI.com: Oh, come on. You're the No. 1 seed.

Azarenka: I never really look at the ranking. Honestly, I don't. If you ask me statistics, I will never tell you. [If you] will ask how many points, what's the difference?

SI.com: Your mentality is just, "go out there, win my match," and not worry about the statistics?

Azarenka: Well, I'm more focused on my work than on the result, because without work you will not have results. If I know that I put in a lot of work, I'll have results. It's a little bit out of my hands.

SI.com: Was that something you had to teach yourself, or has that always been the strategy?

Azarenka: I think that I'm such a professional, that I always want to do better, and better. I think, maybe, before I would be too focused on the results, which I would say [is] hard because you try to go ahead of yourself, a little bit. There are so many steps you have to go through to reach a high level, so you're kind of building your own, I would say, mountain. You have to go piece by piece by piece. When you're young and really ambitious, you want to jump right up. It kind of teaches you a lesson, I would say.

SI.com: People see you out there, and you're very businesslike, you're very intense from the moment people see you. You having fun?

Azarenka: Oh yeah. I love the game. But, this is how I am on the court. This is a part of my game, a little bit, to be intense. I always practice like this. Once I'm off the court... I'm not intense right now am I?

SI.com: You're not so intense. You don't scare me.

Azarenka: So, yeah. It's just for me to be in the best mood, in the best zone that I have to reach to stay in it the whole match. Everybody has their own way.

SI.com: Do you watch your matches?

Azarenka: I'm not a big fan of watching my matches. I watch sometimes; my coach will make me watch a little bit. I can watch a little bit, but I'm not scouting. On YouTube I would actually watch for more videos.

SI.com: Any player you face you can find something on YouTube.

Azarenka: Yeah, pretty much. The little clips I would watch, but to sit and watch my full match, no.

SI.com: Did you watch the Austrailian Open final?

Azarenka: Not the full match.

SI.com: You haven't seen the full match?

Azarenka: No.

SI.com: It was fast. You only need to block out like an hour.

Azarenka: Yeah, well it's a great match to watch. I think I would save it for later, just to remember those memories.

SI.com: Let me ask you about Serena. She comes in, lost in the first round of the French, and there's been a lot of top shelf tennis since then. Do you think it's a surface thing? Do you think, "get her off the grass and she's a lot more beatable?" Where is she in your psyche?

Azarenka: I have a lot of respect for her. I think it's amazing what she's done. Everybody knows that she's a great champion -- it's not like she came out of nowhere and starts winning Olympics, and Grand Slams. She definitely has a lot of baggage, and she definitely has a lot of titles. It's not surprising, but she's definitely remarkable in what she has done. I think women's tennis is really competitive now. It's throughout the whole year -- me winning Australia, Maria winning the French Open, Serena is winning Wimbledon, and we were all on the podium at the Olympic Games. It, kind of, shows the stability there is now. It will be really interesting to see all those players, with many more who have been winning titles. Actually this year, at the U.S. Open, the final one, [it's] the one that everybody wants to grab.

SI.com: If you get Maria at a weak moment, she sort of implies that Serena can be intimidating. Does she intimidate you, or is this just about tennis, and forehands and backhands, and serving 120 mph?

Azarenka: Well, personally, if she says "intimidating," I wouldn't say that, because when I go out and face Serena, I face an opponent. I don't think of her that way. As I said, I can only speak of myself. But, she really kicked everybody's ass at the Olympics, that's for sure.

SI.com: You like the U.S. Open fans?

Azarenka: Yeah, I love the US Open fans. I think everywhere in the States they are so into sports -- not only tennis, but baseball, basketball. Everybody likes to watch the games. You can see people wearing jerseys, [and] hats of the teams. When you come to the States, especially, they make an athlete feel like a superstar a lot of times. So, it's really fun. The U.S. Open, I think, has one of the biggest attendances in our sport. So, it makes it a lot of fun, for sure.

SI.com: Am I a jerk if I asked you about grunting?

Azarenka: You can ask me, but it's, I think, a very old topic.

SI.com: Alright. We have this [grunting] policy coming, they've warned us. You'll get asked about it in the next two weeks, [but] I won't be the last one to do it.

[Writer's note: At this point, agent waves a disapproving finger. Writer takes issue with this. If there were conditions placed on the interview, they should have been conveyed beforehand. If you have a unique trait, one that generates discussion and policy change, you can't expect that it will not come up in discussion. This is totally fair game. And, likewise, it's totally fair game for Azarenka to decline answering, which she did rather gracefully. But the interview continues.]

SI.com: Do you go to the site every day? Or can you go to the Highline, or go to the Statue of Liberty?

Azarenka: Oh, no, no, no. No time for that because you're in training. You have to also be focused, not only on the training, but also on getting good rest, and feeling fresh. No time for that.

SI.com: How many hours do you sleep during a major?

Azarenka: Eight, at least, but nine, normally. [It] depends if you have a night session, or not.

SI.com: Do you like night sessions?

Azarenka: It's fine for me. I don't really prefer anything, but I think it, kind of, changes the whole atmosphere for sure.

SI.com: Does it change your rhythm sometimes -- especially if the women go second -- that you don't get back to your hotel, sometimes, until two in the morning?

Azarenka: It makes it definitely tougher to go second, but you have to adapt. You can complain, you can say whatever, but at the end of the day you just have to adapt.

SI.com: You got one go-to meal....

Azarenka: I really like Tao Restaurant here. It's like Asian fusion. I really enjoy that place. They have another one which is Asia de Cuba, but I just found out a few days ago that it's closed.

SI.com: Alright, give us one more thing you want people to know about you.

Azarenka: One more thing... I love driving cars. I love driving fast.

SI.com: In Europe?

Azarenka: At home.

SI.com: Don't try that in New York.

Azarenka: There's too much traffic!

SI.com: What about out in the Hamptons?

Azarenka: There's too many people, and there is nowhere to go fast, really.

SI.com: Monte Carlo?

Azarenka: Also too many people. So, the best place is Belarus.

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