From the Players' Box with Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka writes about her offseason training and breaks down video clips of her footwork ahead of the 2016 season.
From the Players' Box is a new 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.
I received a lot of positive feedback after writing about my 2015 season, so I thought I’d give you a little insight into what I have been up to over the last few weeks.
Pre-season training is an integral part of my year, the time when I can get my body into the best shape possible so it can sustain a very long competitive season. It also gives me a chance to work on the small details, the tiny elements that can change the way I hit the ball or move my body. Having the time to work on these type of things is what sometimes makes the biggest difference in our sport because, as we all know, it’s the smallest thing in tennis that can make a change in the biggest way.
Here is one part of my preseason training that I found interesting and I hope you do too. (I'll also break down some video clips below.)
I’ve had a problem in my foot for as long as I can remember. Because of the pain that the injury has given me over time, I changed the movement of my foot. I forgot how to plant and push off my foot the right way because I was always overcompensating for the pain.
The correct way to change direction is to push off from your heel to the middle of your foot and then push off from there and through your toes. I didn’t have this movement in my repertoire any longer. So the challenge for the offseason was to learn this movement from scratch and try to re-program my body to do it properly going forward.
The hardest part of moving your foot is not to just doing it correctly, but also being fast and agile. I need to be able to move back and forth, side to side and switch direction very quickly—all while hitting the tennis ball and not losing focus.
Here is the challenge: When we first started working on this movement, I had many thoughts going through my head: Damn, I am slow? What am I going to do if I don’t get this right? Is it hurting again? I think I am feeling the pain…but is it in my foot or in my brain? Is it real pain? Or am I just afraid? Let’s be super careful, O.K.? I don’t want to feel this pain again. I feel like I am walking on glass—is it all in my head?
After starting the process of changing the motion in my foot, I thought I would have to take it day by day. But even if I got just .1% faster, that would be progress for me.
My ego was talking back at me: "OMG. Just go ahead and move like you used to already!”
But here is the catch: I’m not trying to get back to where I used to be. I am here to push myself to become better, to get to where I have never been before.
I kept trying over and over to do the movement the right way, and kept losing my balance. That’s just the way it goes though. But after a few days, I finally held my own and didn’t fall and I was able to move on to the next step. That was a big day for me. I was so excited that I was like kid about to open Christmas gifts!
Getting back on the court gave me a mixed bag of emotions. I was impatient to find out how it would feel. I’m excited to be back in the position to push myself and try to take it to another level, but also uncertain and worried about the outcome. I’m not worried about how I’m going to play, but can I physically handle it? That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I wake up: Will I be able to practice? Did I push too much? Did I make it worse? I know this is not a very positive approach, but it’s my mind and I am constantly fighting with myself. I take a deep breath, I pray and I write a few things down on paper that I want to focus on. And I try all over again the next day, step by step, and one thing at a time.
I am getting stronger every day and I am slowly starting to feel a little bit of satisfaction. I’m very happy with my effort of doing a lot of physical work off the court, but to be honest, I am still dissatisfied with the outcome on the tennis court so far. My effort is there every single day, at a 100%. But I know it takes patience for the off-court work to transition into tennis results. After a while, I am starting to get that feeling I’ve missed for so long! That feeling of being in control on the tennis court. That feeling of being in full control of myself, that’s what I long for. But by the time it all starts again down under, I will be ready!
Video breakdown: Footwork and leg movement
Hey, look at this! I'm doing it the right way and getting better. What's important here is to be able to decelerate with a straight upper body but remain low to the ground with your legs to keep good balance, so you are able to push out of this position as quickly as possible.
In this video, I am close to getting to the ball but the form is completely wrong. I am starting from zero yet again. First things first. I need to get the right form and then focus on speed. I'm definitely not happy about my inability to catch the ball here—I try to catch it however I can because it is my task—but I have to be focused on different goal here.
Here I am still focusing on the footwork. It's the same idea with a different foot position. Moving side to side looks pretty simple—I wish it felt this way. This video was shot after few hours of repetitions, going step by step to be able to get the full foot planting on the ground the right way. And after all of that, I am still way too loud when planting. Soft landing! (I heard that line way too many times during this off season!)
This is a perfect video of my footwork and movement for the entire season last year and the year before. I'm very careful and cautious and definitely a bit worried, but I do it over and over again to try and improve.