The champion who almost quit the sport


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When we reflect upon Victoria Azarenka's rapid rise to prominence, it should be remembered that just 12 months ago the Belarusian was on the verge of quitting the sport.

After she lost to Daniela Hantuchova in the first round at the Qatar Open a year ago, the defeat appeared to be the culmination of a crisis of confidence that threatened to end her career.

Azarenka rushed home, ready to tell her family that she wanted to quit the sport she had grown to despise and loathe, and was on the verge of ending a self-destructive downward spiral.

The ebullient Azarenka said at the time: "It was just not fun for me to do because I'm the type of player that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of desire.

"Every time I was stepping on the court, it was like a misery to me, so I just told my mom, I don't want to play anymore because it's not fun. She's like, 'You know what? I think maybe you're tired, you're burned out. Just come home and see what happens.'"

Instead, she made a decision that in hindsight appears utterly inspired: to take a brief stint away from the game. She returned reinvigorated and re-energised.

What followed was a scintillating 2011 with Azarenka winning 55 of her 72 matches to end the season at number three in the world rankings and with the momentum at the turn of the year.

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"Last year by this time I was a little bit of a mess. I couldn't control any of my emotions, and I didn't really enjoy any part of playing tennis," she said. "But when I came back after Doha to Indian Wells I had to change, my mentality on court, the way I approached the match, the way I approached the tough moment."

What ensued at the start of 2012 was the stuff of dreams: Azarenka immediately stamped her authority on the season with a stunning victory at the Australian Open and, in the process, the Belarusian assumed top spot in the world rankings.

Perhaps even more impressively, she proceeded to win her 17th straight match in taking the Qatar Open title - in so doing, eclipsing Justine Henin's long-standing record of 16 straight victories on the WTA Tour.

Azarenka's seemingly endless run is already record-breaking, and it epitomises the new-found confidence and composure of the 22-year-old.

But what should be credited with Azarenka's sudden resurgence beyond her own mentality?

Well, the player herself puts her transformation down to a greater personal maturity instilled in her by coach Sam Sumyk.

It would also be remiss to not note her improved fitness that has helped to reduce injuries and strengthen her stamina.

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The player who was once just as well known for her inexplicable midcourt meltdowns and emotional capitulations as for her elegant but destructive backhand is now steely and gathered.

The courage and determination she showcased in her Qatar Open semi-final against Agnieszka Radwanska when she battled through an ankle injury and a loss of energy to seal her place in the final was telling: this is a player who believes she will win whatever the situation demands.

Perhaps ironically, in ascending to the top spot with victory at the Australian Open, Azarenka replaced Caroline Wozniacki, who was long criticised during her reign for not having won a Grand Slam tournament.

Azarenka is already being styled as a champion of substance; a champion of more than mere consistency on Tour; a champion of mental steel and courage to match her talent.

The great Martina Navratilova is among those who are already touting Azarenka to form a potentially distinguished rivalry with Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, with the pair each demonstrating the talent and personality for a notable head-to-head.

"I don't try to think why is it happening to me," Azarenka said. "I just try to accept and deal with it. Every opponent is going to try to beat me, beat the other players. I just try to stay really focused on each moment because I know it doesn't matter what the score is. You always have a chance until the match is done."


TWEETS OF THE WEEK: "Can't stop laughing just can't stop laughing…fashionable yet masculine OMG OMG OMG!" (This Tweet from Azarenka really needed a picture to accompany it)

"I finished my match, had a little celebratory cheese cake with the team and pops, and now I got on a flight to Memphis. On to the next one!" (Milos Raonic was another winner this week in San Jose - isn't cheese cake what all tennis players eat to celebrate?)

"Jamie, Andy n me bontering about sport! Bonter is Andys word for "bad banter". But it's a good show!" (Judy Murray, bontering with her two sons for the amusement of all)

STAT OF THE WEEK: Henin's record 16-match winning streak occurred at the start of 2004  as the Belgian began the year with three WTA titles: in Sydney, the Australian Open in Melbourne and in Doha.

SHOTS OF THE WEEK: Roger Federer was reportedly paid a vast sum of money to turn up and play - and subsequently win - ATP Rotterdam, but he did not realise that a barrage of fireworks would be let off just behind his back as he was lifting a pretty uninspiring dish.

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Raonic embarked upon a truly epic hug-athon following his victory in San Jose, a gruelling 30-minute challenge which left him almost as emotionally tired as he was physically worn out after defeating Denis Istomin.

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Rather annoyingly for Raonic, no sooner had he finished his hug-athon, did he realise that his winner's 'trophy' was identical to the runners-up award handed to Istomin. It's the golden rule of selecting tournaments besides the prize money: check out the spoils beforehand.

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