Azarenka: My special connection to Paris and journey to Roland Garros
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.
Over the course of my 10-year professional tennis career, I must have played in about 200 tournaments and visited hundreds of cities around the world. This week I find myself in Paris, the site of the second Grand Slam of the year, Roland Garros. Paris sits at the top of the list of my favorite cities and every time I come here, I get that special feeling. I can’t really describe it. It’s just that feeling of being in a place where every building is filled with history and every cobblestone tells a story. The architecture takes your breath away and you can feel this city’s soul on every street corner.
France was one of the first countries I visited as a young tennis player. The first time I played a tournament here, I must have been nine. It took place at a small city in France and I remember it was a clay court event not far from Paris. I was so excited—I counted the sleeps till I could get on the court and play.
My next memory is playing in the super prestigious Les Petits As event in Tarbes, France. The best under-14 kids compete there and it was an amazing experience. I was a very competitive junior to say the least, but mostly it’s because I played one year below my age group so the kids I was competing against were usually bigger and stronger than me. I remember playing a very talented Swiss girl named Timea Bacsinszky in Tarbes, who beat me. She was very good then and went on to become a great tennis player.
I was 14 the first time I played at Roland Garros. I remember walking the grounds and being in awe of this historic Grand Slam. That year I was a part of the ITF’s team of juniors. We had eight girls and 10 boys on the team, and four coaches that took care of us, and the whole group travelled together for two months across Europe. My first junior Roland Garros experience didn’t go too well—I lost to Shahar Peeer in the third round.
The next year, at 15, I was already the No. 1 junior and won the junior Australian Open that year. In Paris, I lost in singles to Alisa Kleybanova, yet won the doubles title with Agnes Szavay. That was the last time I played juniors.
At 16, I played my first Roland Garros as a pro. I entered qualifying and had to win three matches in order to get into the main draw, which I did. In the first round I played a Spanish girl named Anabel Medina Garrigues on Court 3. I remember being up 6–0, 3–1 but the match kept going and going and going and before I knew it, I ended up losing the battle 9–7 in the third set. It was a major heartbreak—it definitely seemed like the end of the world that day. I broke into the WTA Top 100 that year.
The 2016 edition marks my 12th year at Roland Garros as I missed 2014 with a foot injury. I was pretty devastated to not being able to play that year. It was so tough I couldn’t even watch the event; just tried to pretend that it wasn’t happening.
I took a lot of time off from tennis during the 2014 season and tried to do things I’ve never done before. I came to Paris for the first time outside of Roland Garros in the fall and stayed for almost a month. I wanted to challenge myself by being in a place where I wasn’t very comfortable. While I’ve been to Paris every year for more than a decade, I didn’t know the city too well. When you are playing tennis, you don’t get a chance to explore the city or go to museums, it’s mostly all about the tennis site and the hotel. Being in Paris on my free time turned into a life-changing experience. It was unnerving at times because I had to figure out my own way and navigate through the culture and the language. I rented a place near the Opera and wandered the beautiful streets. I took the time to enjoy coffee breaks, meet new people and study architecture. I tried to immerse myself fully in the French culture and as I learned more, I began to understand the French people better.
Through the years I’ve become a big fan of football and while spending time in France, I started going to Le Parc des Princes and supporting Paris St. Germain. The team has been doing so well over the last few seasons and has brought so much excitement to Paris. I definitely have a better connection with Parisians because of PSG and its crazy passion for football.
As hard as it was being absent during the 2014 Roland Garros, sometimes being away from the tour can be quite therapeutic. I remember my match against Serena in Paris last year. I was still coming back from the foot problem and wasn’t fully ready, but it was an amazing match and I remember it clearly. I look back on that match and it makes me want to perform well in Paris in front of these amazing crowds that much more.
I’ve been asked quite a bit about my goal for this tournament. Of course, I go into every single event wanting to win it. But in addition to that, I want to appreciate the process and remember the reason why I am playing tennis in the first place. How am I different today from the girl who played qualies here 10 years ago? Clay can be quite tricky so it’s important that I learn something new about this surface every day and incorporate that knowledge in my matches. I want to enjoy the journey each and every day. The practices, the grueling fitness work—it all makes the results so much more rewarding.
After being away from the sport for almost a full season, you try to work so hard to prove people wrong, to prove that you are still a champion. Sometimes focusing so much on proving others wrong makes you forget why you play tennis in the first place. The love for the sport is what brought me to Paris in the first place more than 16 years ago. And all these years later, my passion hasn’t changed. I am as excited for this Roland Garros journey as I was when I was nine-years-old and starting my first clay court match in France.