By Matt Cronin
NEW YORK - Victoria Azarenka has been an extremely talented player since she came on tour full time at the age of 17. She proved earlier this year by winning the Australian Open and seizing the No. 1 ranking that she had developed the mental toughness to potentially become a great player.
But coming into the US Open, questions rose as to whether she could recapture the level that made her the first quarter of the years’ best player. Plenty of players have had fantastic three-month runs. Plenty of them have also fallen back to the pack. While the 23 year old did not stumble badly, she had not raised a trophy since she had belted Maria Sharapova to win Indian Wells in early March. She briefly lost the top spot to Sharapova after the Russian won Roland Garros. She regained it again when reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and Sharapova fell early. But she did not win that tournament, nor did she triumph at the Olympics in singles, only winning the bronze. She played well on grass and clay, but not at the same level that she did early in the year on hard courts.
So on Tuesday in Flushing Meadow when defending champion Samantha Stosur began to dig into one of their contests for the first time in seven matches (Azarenka has thrashed her six times before), it appeared that she might fall short of her goals once again, which would be to win the tournament. She had never reached the semifinal - so at the very least, she had to show she was composed enough to take a clean leap into a final four.
She was in deep trouble as Stosur was clicking on all cylinders. But down a break point at 5-6 in the third set, she rocked back and nailed an ace down the T, her first of the match and her biggest serve of the tournament.
"She's feeling confident," Azarenka recalled, "She has a chance. I had to come up and be strong, so I was like, 'Okay. Let's do it. If I miss it, I miss it.'"
Azarenka talks about not being a chicken and how she has to tell herself to go for her shots at crunch time. In the tiebreaker, she took plenty of risks, but a couple of them were unseemly. Up 5-3, she double faulted by a mile. It appeared she might be nervous closing the match out, but in reality, she just threw up a bad toss.
"Sh** serve, seriously," she said. "It was just a terrible, terrible. Wrong movement. I was not focused enough on my execution, what I had to do."
Then Stosur nailed a huge serve and an overhead to tie the breaker at 5-5.
But "Vika" locked right back in. Stosur clipped the net cord with a groundstroke and Azarenka approached the net and smoothed a gorgeous backhand drop shot winner.
"I showed some good hands, I guess," she said with wide smile. A few moments later, she crushed a forehand close to the baseline that Stosur couldn’t handle and she looked very relieved after her 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5) victory.
Later in the hallway, she approached her coach Sam Sumyk, looking for a hug and pat on the back.
"I think she just wants to hear me showing her that I'm proud of her," Sumyk said. "We all look for that. When you [have] a big performance against the defending champion, [she wants me to say] only positive things because, obviously, I am a coach -- I say only negative things…It’s big. You cannot have another feeling when you win a breaker in the third set at the US Open."
Azarenka was not always the hardest worker on tour. When she first began to work with Sumyk in January 2010, she was still a bit out of shape, overly temperamental on court, she still needed to make technical improvement with her forehand and serve and had to realize that she was an adult and that being petulant when she didn't get her way would not improve her lot in life.
She decided that just finishing the year in the top 10 was not good enough and wanted to be battling tooth and nail with the elite. So she seriously committed to improving and at the start of this year began to see fruits of her labor.
"She likes to be in the situation of being challenged," Sumyk said.
Azarenka says that one of the reasons why it took her until the age of 22 to become a Grand Slam winner is because she wanted it too much and didn't focus on the process. She was impatiently ambitious to the point that she began to try too hard and grew frustrated when things weren’t going her way. Now she focuses more on execution, rather than dreaming about what could be.
She enjoys battles like she had against Stosur, soaking in every moment. She talks about how she revels in the struggle and the pain that players go through in big matches and the "incredible moment that you feel relieved after, you gave it all in every point you had."
The Belarusian has not won a title since Indian Wells in March and admits that she has missed winning titles. As she said, most players want to win every time out. "That's the ambition; that's the mindset," she said.
It took Azarenka – who is admittedly mistrustful - a fair amount of time to learn to trust Sumyk. It also took her years to begin to trust herself on court. That came from experience, not some innate sense of a confident, unerring self.
"You have to go through mistakes more to learn how to understand yourself more, feel yourself," she said. "For me it's important to feel myself. The main key is I never lie to myself. If I feel nervous, I'll say I feel nervous. If I feel relaxed, I'll say I feel relaxed. So I feel this is important to be honest with yourself and never be afraid of your feelings."
Azarenka will face the winner of the quarterfinal between Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli, both of whom have beaten her this year and both whom she owns victories over. If she manages to win her semifinal and enter the final, then she’ll have an even bigger opportunity: to win another Slam and become a truely elite player.
Thousands of players have failed to win even one major, but no player who has grabbed one wants to go down in history as one-Slam wonder. If Azarenka can win the 2012 US Open, she’ll become the first player of her generation to win two and then can be called a truly elite player.
"I believe it’s possible and if I don't believe it I might as well as stay home myself," Sumyk said. "But at the moment we are not thinking of her second Grand Slam. You would like to feel those emotions again, but it’s not an objective that makes us crazy. We don't think abut winning two, three four or five [Grand Slams]. We just want to get better."