Azarenka: What I learned from my Super Bowl 50 experience
From the Players' Box is a series on SI.com which gives you a front row seat to all of the action in a professional tennis player's life—from training, to traveling and more—straight from a player's point of view. Each month, From the Players' Box with Victoria Azarenka will give the 26-year-old Belarusian a platform to discuss issues on Tour, practices, her life off of the court and more.
On Feb. 7, I had the most amazing experience attending the NFL’s Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., and it ultimately turned out to be a phenomenal learning experience for me. I watched every move the athletes made, both before and during the game. My observation in short: During the warm-up, there was such a different dynamic at the opposite ends of the field. On one side, the Denver Broncos seemed locked in and ready while on the other end, the Carolina Panthers appeared to be hyped and relaxed, but something told me they really were tight and extremely nervous.
As the game began, the Broncos stayed consistent with my pre-game analysis—they were ready for whatever came their way—but the Panthers’ lack of experience during the challenging moments on the big stage began to show. Even though their talent wasn’t destroyed, their weaker emotions were exposed.
I am a sports fan like many of you guys, but I am also an athlete, and this is why I observe—and can relate, to some extent—how players in any sport push to be the best they can be. I have a lot of respect for athletes who do that, especially in that one moment they’ve been waiting their whole lives for.
In tennis we have four huge events every year (five during Olympic years) and I have been fortunate enough to win two of them in my career. But the NFL’s Super Bowl comes around just once in a season. There is so much hype surrounding the game—on the field it’s so loud and the impressive halftime show adds another layer to an event that is already such a huge spectacle. But in tennis, it is quiet on the court and you are completely alone out there with your thoughts for what seems to be a very long time—sometimes so long that you find yourself overthinking.
Because of how different the two sports are, it’s almost impossible to compare a tennis Grand Slam with the Super Bowl. But I am confident that for both, none of the distractions matter to the athletes. They have one goal—and that is to win.
I definitely do not know what it’s like to play in the Super Bowl; however, I do know what it feels like to be in a high-pressure situation, when your A-game is not working, and when you don’t want to let your team, family, friends and fans down. It’s tough, but it’s part of the job and completely human to get caught up in the moment and feel and reflect emotions that sometimes you don’t want the world to see.
When you live and work in the public eye, you are not protected or given a pass for the ordinary mistakes that everyone makes in life. Any mistake is amplified because you are well known and you are a role model! Don’t get me wrong—it is an honor to know that young people look up to me, but is it fair to have no room for error? Maybe not, but it is what it is and it's just a price that athletes have to pay.
I was once told that I strongly reacted to situations I perceived were unfair to me, and it showed in my behavior on the court. That comment made me think and after some self-reflection, I realized it was true. Is this part of my character and personality? I think so. Did I develop this trait or had I always showed this type of emotion? Maybe it’s a combination of both. Everyone’s perception of unfairness is different, but for me, an unfair situation is when someone is treated badly or not given an opportunity that they have worked hard for and deserve. I remember one specific time when someone I know put himself in the best possible position to play for his country, but then didn’t get picked because of politics. This made me so frustrated! Very often I used to react with anger and I think this happened because part of me wanted to give up. You have a tendency to feel sorry for yourself and this is not inhuman, but it also doesn’t change anything and doesn’t help anyone.
I don’t think we pay enough attention to our emotions and these emotions ultimately translate into actions. When people disregard how they feel, it builds up inside and then surfaces through actions, usually at the worst possible moment. Sometimes the emotions, and ignoring that they exist, are subconscious—I definitely did not pay enough attention to them when I was younger. This escalated and caused me to act out through pure emotion. I am very sensitive and I know that. I can overact easily and I’ve had a few moments like this and they have harmed me. They have harmed not only my image in the public’s view but also more importantly, they have affected me on the inside. In life you need to not only look after your body externally but internally as well. I understand this now. I have worked on it and will continue to do so because what really matters is who you are when you peel away all of your layers—your truest self.
Previously, in any situation that I believed to be unfair, I would react, whether I was a bystander or directly involved. I wasn’t always right but I have strong beliefs. I wouldn't—and still sometimes don’t—take a moment to realize and see different perspectives in a given situation. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes with politics and people playing games and I learned the hard way that things will not always go the how you want them to and when this happens, you have to adapt and be flexible with your thought process. In order to grow, I need to control only what’s in my hands, always keep high personal standards and beliefs, always try to do the right thing, like my parents raised me to, and learn through my experiences, whether they are good or bad.
If you’re wondering about the kid I mentioned that didn’t get his shot: In this particular case, I got emotional but didn’t overreact. Instead, I used what power I did have to get him a chance. Every situation is different and you have to assess each one and figure out how to improve it—and also understand that if you cannot do anything to fix it, then you must move on. This is the art of letting go, being true to yourself and happy with the person looking back at you in the mirror.
I really do challenge each one of you to think beyond what’s happening on the surface with all athletes prior to making a judgment. Try to ask the question “Why?” when assessing an individual’s behavior. People are unique and shaped by the experiences in their lives. Sometimes these life experiences bring people to a good place and sometimes to a bad one, which is why I believe you should give people the benefit of the doubt and a chance to redeem themselves.
This step was vital for me—I put myself in someone else’s shoes and really tried to understand the reason for their actions and their personal situation. Most importantly, I learned to forgive emotional mistakes.