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Art of the presser: No. 1 Azarenka treading gently into media waters

Victoria Azarenka's shining moment of the U.S. Open so far did not come on Ashe Stadium center court, where, most recently, the top-seeded Belarusian ousted reigning champion Sam Stosur of Australia to advance to the semifinal round here for the first time. It came just a short walk from the court, inside a room too big to call a studio, too small to call an auditorium -- and yet just right for a performance. Its broad dais, bright lights and theater seating set a high bar, and when the stars fall short the exit reviews can be stinging.

Azarenka? She killed. Her headlining press conference following her 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 victory was a tour de force, thoughtful, endearing and -- perhaps most stunning of all -- fun. It was also a major breakthrough for the 23-year-old, who until recently entered such gatherings with the wariness of a woman asked to stick her head in a beehive.

On Tuesday, in Interview room 1 at Ashe Stadium, Azarenka was honest about her ambitions and how she struggles to reconcile her desire to chase the rush of raising a trophy "everywhere I go" with not wanting to "get too far ahead of myself." She was sweet, expressing genuine surprise when asked about her lone ace in the match, a 92 mph torpedo down the T that erased a break point chance at 5-all in the third set. "Why do you guys say I served an ace?" said a giggling Azarenka, whose clutch play helped ensure she'll retain the No. 1 spot when the new rankings are released on Monday. "Did I? (...) Seriously?"

She even was flattering to her possible semifinal opponents -- including Russia's Maria Sharapova, whom she will face on Friday in Ashe (Sharapova beat Marion Bartoli of France in three sets there on Wednesday). "Maria is always one of these players that will give it her all no matter what the score is," Azarenka said. "She's always fighting."

Simply put: Azarenka owned the room. And who thought that possible after the obliging Stosur news conference that came just before? It had ended with a trophy presentation, after all. The USTA sent her home with a $5,000 silver bowl from Tiffany's, a token of appreciation for the good sportsmanship she exhibited on the court and beyond during the North American hardcourt season. It was a fitting send-off for a player who would win over the press with her grace and generous spirit long before claiming her first major. But on this afternoon she had nothing on Azarenka. If not for the time commitments on both sides of the dais, who knows how much longer she would've held this tough crowd in her palm, how many more critics she could have squeezed into saying She was great! as they streamed out of the aisles?

This Azarenka was 180-degrees from the one who had never met an audience of reporters she couldn't text in front of, the one for whom one-word answers were the norm. Before long, so too was this group ignoring almost every bit of her but the goose honk that punctuates her every stroke.

No young player goes into a relationship with the media easily, much less willingly. It's just another one of those things -- like picking a coach or scheduling practices -- that gets sorted by trial and error. "There's no manual for it," said Jim Courier, who could've written the book on what not to do. During his time on tour in the late 1980s through the early-2000s, the U.S. Davis Cup captain might have claimed even fewer admirers in the Fourth Estate than Azarenka. Why? "I was definitely a little caustic at times," he said. "I got burned with a couple articles early on. It took me a while to figure out how to play the game a little bit better."

Every player brings a different strategy. Not all of them are winners. James Blake's is to speak ad nauseam and say nothing. Andy Roddick's is to always -- always -- be the smartest guy in the room. Roger Federer cloaks his arrogance in his ability to speak four languages with the utmost politeness. Novak Djokovic deflects serious questions about his game with a hair-trigger sense of humor.

Sharapova lets her eight-figure endorsement portfolio speak on her behalf; rarely does she undermine its well-crafted message, one that casts her as the Gwyneth Paltrow of tennis -- tall, blonde and replete with good taste.

But some missteps came this month. On the eve of the fortnight she appeared on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to promote her candy line. Days later, in separate appearances inside Interview Room 1, she leveled that news with a pair of bombs: In the first she revealed that she had submitted to an ultrasound as part of an investigation into a lingering flu bug, and it had showed that "I was fine, not pregnant." (A day later her agent, Max Eisenbud, visited the media room to emphasize that his client was kidding.) In the second she announced that her near two-year engagement to pro basketball player Sasha Vujacic was off.

So even the most well rehearsed pros get it wrong. There's no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all approach. "Every player has to walk their own path as far as how they want to manage everything that happens outside of the court," Courier said.

Azarenka's problem was that she just didn't know how. She started out in tennis a bit of a loner, shipped to Arizona from her native Minsk as a teenager to pursue her tennis dream. She was facing her wonder years in a different culture, in a new language. If there was a phrase that stuck it was media obligation, and the last word was never lost in translation.

So worried was the WTA tour of someday winding up with a top ranked player that no one wants to talk to that they asked The Times of London's esteemed tennis writer Neil Harman to give her a crash course in media training after the 2011 Australian Open. The lesson: engage a little bit more. She put it into practice two months later, at the Miami Masters. When about half a dozen reporters showed up for a news conference before she was to meet Sharapova in the finals, Azarenka stepped down from the dais and sat among her inquisitors.

It's the kind of deft stroke that Courier didn't have to try when he was coming up. In his day, a player could get away with being prickly. Today, it pays to be nice. It's no coincidence that Courier's mellowing out dovetailed with the beginning of a second career as a broadcaster.

Azarenka, though, is still learning the game. And that game can still be cruel. She went the whole first week of this year's Wimbledon without being invited to speak at one of the two main pressrooms, where interviews are transcribed; no official record of her speaking existed until the fourth round. It was an astonishingly cold shoulder for a player who was ranked No. 2 in the world, had won the Australian Open and at one point this season was riding a 26-match win streak.

But inside Interview Room 1, these days, Azarenka finally feels the love. Her sessions have had robust attendance. One was even crashed by LMFAO frontman RedFoo, who flanked her on the dais. Call it payback for borrowing his signature jig to celebrate some of her victories. She spent the entire session with a huge smile on her face, like someone who's just figured out the steps to a new dance.

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