She was oblivious to it all. To the birds chirping above her. The ball boys carrying flags as they walked by her. The caterers wheeling a cart. Half an hour before the women's final of the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka stood alone in the tunnels of Rod Laver Arena. She was in her "Vika shell," as she's called it, alone with her thoughts.
It had been a few days since she'd had much solitude. But now, finally, she was gathering herself. She could barely nod when her coach and trainer spoke to her. With a hooded sweatshirt shrouding her face and ear buds firmly in place, she stretched her legs and rolled her head and jumped up and down. She looked less like a tennis player than a fighter preparing for battle. Which, in a sense, she was.
When she entered the arena, she stayed in her personal isolation chamber for the next three hours. You could hardly have fashioned a stranger match, one loaded with more opportunity to lose focus. Let us count the ways. With her title defense and No.1 ranking on the line, Azarenka was the clear-cut favorite. An overwhelmingly partisan crowd, though, cheered vocally the opponent, China's Li Na, who won the first set.
"China national flag everywhere," Li said. "I was, 'Oh, looks like China Open.'"
Sympathy for Li -- and antipathy for Azarenka -- grew when Li turned her ankle in the second set. The third set was interrupted nine minutes by an Australia Day fireworks display. In the very first point after the break, Li turned her ankle again and konked her head on the court, garnering still more of the crowd's sympathy.
"Two [seconds] I couldn't really see anything," Li said. "It was totally black. ... So when the physio come, she was like, 'Focus on my finger.' I [started] laughing. I was thinking, 'This is tennis court, not like hospital.'"
Through it all, Azarenka kept it together. For spurts anyway -- and when it mattered -- we saw her at her best. She pasted balls off both sides, teed off on second serves and showed a real appetite for risks. When the baseline game wasn't working, she made dashes to the net. When the wide serves weren't working, she went up the middle. And she competed like hell.
When she finally emerged from her personal bubble, she had won the second major of her career, beating Li in a bizarrely entertaining, entertainingly bizarre match, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
"I knew what I had to do," Azarenka said. "I had to stay calm. I had to stay positive. I just had to deal with the things that came onto me."
The independence, boldness and single-minded focus that helped her win? They don't always serve her so well. What makes Azarenka admirable can also make her disagreeable. She punctuates her shots by shrieking like a siren as she makes contact? She doesn't care if you don't like it. She's had various beefs with various opponents? So what. She pulled out of an event earlier this month citing a pedicure injury, exasperating the promoter? Tough luck. As Chris Evert put it, "She is strong willed. She is stubborn."
Then, of course, there was "Vikagate." In the semifinals, Azarenka was leading Sloane Stephens, the young American, 6-1, 5-3 when she suddenly became incapacitated by nerves. A forehand sailed halfway to Tasmania. Five times she held match point and couldn't close the deal. It was a classic case of choking, an experience all players experience from time to time. The prospect of players either subduing their nerves or submitting to them -- and there were many examples of each this week -- is part of what makes the sport so beguiling.
You know what happened next. Azarenka called a medical timeout and left the court. She returned 10 minutes later and, conspicuously more poised, won the match. In an interview immediately after, she lamented, "I almost did the choke job of the year." In another interview, she described symptoms of a panic attack. She claimed she misunderstood the question and broke down in tears when she realized the cause celebre. In the press conference later, she tried to diffuse controversy, asserting she truly did have a conventional injury, a dislodged rib.
"A Timeout Jeered Around the World" as
This was the best of tennis; this was the worst of tennis. Fair play still matters. Sportsmanship still matters. The rules -- and their spirit -- still matter. Especially in the absence of strong leadership -- the WTA was conspicuously absent as the tour's top player was embroiled in controversy -- it's on the players to compete with honor. But criticism bled into mean-spirited and misogynistic. Azarenka's Facebook page became a province for trolls. Her lapse in decorum became an inane referendum on everything wrong with women's tennis.
To her credit, Azarenka realized she had a crisis on her hands and went on the defensive. Not exactly the optimal way to prepare for a Grand Slam final, she consented to a battery of interviews where she tried to explain herself. (She struck to her story that she had a legitimate physical injury and simply should have taken the break earlier.) She texted Stephens an explanation.
If Azarenka was in arrears to tennis she sure began working it off Saturday night. Under the most extraordinary circumstances, she won her second major. She won't rival other players in popularity -- certainly not Li, whose courage was exceptional. ("She's badgered, bruised and quite possibly buggered," as the trophy presenter put it.) She still hasn't been forgiven in some quarters. But it's impossible not to respect her mental fitness.
When Li overcooked a forehand on match point, Azarenka showed an awareness of the circumstances and could scarcely have been more muted in celebration. She dropped her racket, smiles and kissed her crucifix. And then she walked to her box -- the only pocket of the stadium that supported her. And then it all came pouring out. The days in the Internet spanking machine. The accusations that she lacked honor, that she had betrayed the Republic of Tennis. And, oh right, the stress of playing a major. She cried. Convulsively. "You are a real champion," her agent assured her.
It had been an inexpressibly crazy two days. Crazy three sets. Crazy two weeks. But she was the one with the trophy.
"It's been tough," Azarenka said, once she had composed herself. "You have to go through rough patches to achieve great things. That's [what] makes it so special. That I went through [this] and can still kiss the trophy."