Victoria Azarenka casts aside doubts and ‘villain’ tag on semi-final return

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Do you know what happened 10 years ago?” says Victoria Azarenka. It is hard to read her emotions because of the sunglasses she wears at her press conference, but her voice is laced with long-held contempt. Assumptions were made about what occurred at Melbourne Park in 2013 when the 23-year-old Azarenka, having just squandered five match points in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens, took a lengthy, controversial medical timeout before winning the match and then defending her 2012 title.

But a decade on, in the context of her references to anxiety and panic attacks fuelled by – among other things – an intense fear of failure, there is a sense the reality may be more nuanced. That Azarenka was, as she put it, painted as the “villain” in the Hollywood narrative that accompanies so many sports. “But we’re not villains, we’re not heroes – we are regular human beings that go through so many, many things,” she says, adding that she sympathises with Novak Djokovic over external doubts about his hamstring injury.

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“It was one of the worst things that I’ve ever gone through in my professional career, the way I was treated after that moment. The way I had to explain myself, until 10.30pm at night, because people didn’t want to believe me.

“Assumptions and judgments, all those comments are just shit because nobody’s there to see the full story. It didn’t matter how many times I said my story, it did not cut through … it took me 10 fucking years to get over it. I finally am over that.”

The Azarenka renaissance is not just about her tennis, though her tennis has played a significant role. The Belarusian former world No 1 is back in the final four of an Australian Open for the first time since those events in 2013 thanks to what might be labelled a “vintage” quarter-final performance against the third seed, Jessica Pegula. But that would be to infer that this vintage of Azarenka is identical to the first, when so much about the current version differs.

The heights of her first coming were reached when she was in her early 20s and bringing then musician boyfriend, Redfoo, to press conferences. Back then she did not always understand the feelings she had on court, let alone what to do about them. These days she is more likely to bring her seven-year-old son, Leo, to meet the media. A difficult custody battle has shaped her outlook and perspective, as has her “daily work” to develop an awareness of her emotions and combat negative self-talk.

“I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative,” she says. “Accepting the anxiety that I have, accepting the fear that I have, kind of working through it … which is pretty hard to do.

“I’m pretty happy that the process that I’m going through makes me feel confident about myself, happy about myself, and helps me to be more open, be more accepting, be compassionate. ‘Compassionate’ was a very hard word for me to understand.”

When she plays Elena Rybakina for a place in the final on Thursday she will not need external validation, though she will surely receive it anyway for this campaign, which brings to memory her 2020 run to the US Open final. Arguably this tournament’s best returner, she will be pitted against its best server in the reigning Wimbledon champion, who herself has had to fight to be taken seriously but firmly announced herself via her fourth-round defeat of the top seed, Iga Swiatek, and then Jelena Ostapenko in the quarters.

Only Rybakina now stands in the way, and the Kazakh will not be as generous with her serve as Pegula, who lost half of her first-serve points. But should Azarenka triumph she could yet form one half of a potential all-Belarusian final, with the fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka hoping she won’t become the latest top-50 player undone by Magda Linette after the unseeded Pole outdid Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday to secure her place in the semis.

Whichever way the results fall, Azarenka is comfortable in who she is.

“I’ve been called that I’m cheating, that I’m faking, that I was trying to throw people off their game,” she says. “It’s everything that is so wrong about my character if somebody actually knows me. At some point you’re like: ‘Really? Am I?’ Those doubts starts to creep in.

“Now I just don’t care. I am more and more confident in what I know about myself, and I’m at peace with that. Those comments, judgments, they’re there – I notice them, but I don’t care.”