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.
There is no feeling that compares to representing your country at the Olympics. Every victory for every athlete is great, but winning not just for yourself but also on behalf of your country is extremely special. Fed Cup is also similar to the Olympics—earlier this year Belarus made the World Group for the first time ever and it was a very honorable achievement for my country and me. I have been watching some of the Olympic events live and lots of highlights and post-event interviews with the athletes. It is such a privilege to be a part of the Olympics and watching Rio 2016 gave me flashback emotions and motivation to reflect my thoughts on what it was like to represent Belarus in the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games.
Competing for your country is so different and so emotional in comparison to competing for yourself, as we are so used to doing in tennis. There has been a lot of talk about the Olympics not being important to the sport of tennis because we have four Grand Slams in a calendar year, but I believe that the tennis event in Rio proved that this couldn’t be more inaccurate. Novak Djokovic, who has won all four Grand Slams and has a bronze medal, wasn’t afraid to show his tears of heartbreak as he exited the court after losing to Juan Martin del Potro. The tournament’s crowd favorite del Potro showed how important the Olympics was to him, after all of his injuries and struggles as he kissed the Olympic rings and played with pure grit, passion and determination. Rafael Nadal played through fitness concerns solely because it was the Olympic Games and admitted he would have been resting had it been any other week in the tennis calendar. Despite losing in singles and women’s doubles, Venus Williams stuck around for mixed doubles with the hope of still winning a medal to add to her collection. Venus stayed because it was important to her, and I know she will be glad that she stayed and became only the second tennis player ever win five Olympic medals. Andy Murray also made history by being the first player ever to win back-to-back Olympic Gold medals in singles. This came after being the flagbearer for Great Britain at the opening ceremony—an experience he described as “the proudest moment of my life.”
One of my favorite moments was Monica Puig taking home the gold medal for Puerto Rico in her first Olympic Games. Puig’s whole Olympic campaign was incredibly inspiring and she played every match with so much desire, it was great to watch. It is safe to say that Monica united a struggling country as they all watched her fairytale unfold, as she became the first ever Puerto Rican athlete to win an Olympic Gold medal and first female Puerto Rican athlete to win any medal of any color. The whole world fell in love with Puig and her story and she should be extremely proud of herself. Those that doubt that the Olympics isn’t important to tennis players should take a moment to reflect on the Rio 2016 Olympic tennis event and the passion of everyone who competed, because they made me proud to be part of the sport of tennis.
For me personally, no other tennis event compares to the Olympics. As a kid the Olympics is what you think about as the pinnacle of sport before you learn about the big events specific to your sport. Winning two Olympic medals is definitely one of the highlights of my career, especially because you only have the opportunity once every four years, which alone makes it so much more special. Winning a Grand Slam is the goal of a tennis player but winning an Olympic medal is the goal of a global athlete, so to be part of that elite group is an honor. As a child growing up the Olympics seems so big and when you are there it is hard to caption the moment because it’s so emotional. No one can fully describe the feelings and emotions that go through your head and body during the experience. You see how different everyone’s reactions are as they stand on the podium, because it’s not just about that day but about your personal journey. The medal ceremony becomes a moment of reflection as your national anthem plays and your country’s flag rises and you can’t help but burst with pride. As I reflect on London 2012, one of the hardest things I did was play for the bronze medal. Normally after you lose in a tournament your body lets go of all the tension and it’s hard to transform that tension into something you still have to fight for. Having to bounce back strongly from a loss in such a short period of time and prove that you have the right to stand on the podium and take home a medal for your country is a surreal, emotional rollercoaster.
The Olympic games are full of so many inspiring moments, even beyond tennis. Michael Phelps came back after what he describes himself as a difficult time, to arguably become one of the greatest Olympians of all time with 23 gold medals. In Rio alone, Phelps won five gold medals and one silver. The silver medal came from a defeat by young 21-year-old Joseph Schooling, who’s idol was Michael Phelps growing up. It is great to see the sporting world come full circle. Winning the 100-meter freestyle gold medal, Simone Manuel became the first African-American Swimmer to win Olympic gold. Manuel is a true reflection of the Olympics and also the power of sport to overcome difficulty, unite people and embrace diversity. Her story is very powerful. I also really enjoyed watching the beach volleyball tournament—I love Kerry Walsh-Jennings. Even though she didn’t win gold this year, I think she is a great role model.
As most of you probably know I am a huge basketball fan and watching the Olympic tournament is no exception. The USA is always so dominant but it’s fun to watch the other nations growing year by year. Australia is doing quite well and I think the sport is getting very big there now and its cool to see more of their players in the NBA now. It was also amazing to see Brazil win their first Olympic gold medal in soccer, a sport the country is so passionate about. So many great players have tried and couldn’t accomplish the achievement of winning gold and watching Neymar lead the Brazilian team through struggle after their heartbreaking World Cup loss in 2014 was remarkable. Finally, who doesn’t love watching the track and field events? Usain Bolt is undeniably the greatest of all time. He makes it looks so easy and is always so confident, but only he knows the blood sweat and tears that were put into those victories. He has great charisma and that makes every aspect of his races so much fun for his fans. I love that about him. Bolt has been the face of track and field for the past 12 years and has helped the sport so much—we are all lucky to have witnessed such a legend in action.
The Olympics are so unique. The Games ignite nations as they cheer on their best athletes across different sports, but at the same time the Olympics unite the world. Sport has not only the power to bring people together but also give individuals their own life purpose. For the first time this year I paid attention to how many athletes have come back after having children, to then go on to compete at the highest level in their sport. The most wonderful article I have seen during this time was filled with photographs of Olympic champions celebrating with their kids—motivation at its finest! The Rio 2016 Olympics were a phenomenal event and I had lots of fun watching it all unfold.