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Matt Cronin: One-on-One with Victoria Azarenka

7/26/2011 11:00:00 PM

Around this time last year, world number four Victoria Azarenka came out of her shell and began engaging with the media. Prior to that, the soon to be 22 year old had a rocky relationship with the press, to the point where she was barely covered despite her on court success.

But right after 2010 Wimbledon at the Bank of the West Classic -- where she is defending her title this week – Azarenka made a concerted effort to show the brighter side of her self. Since then, she’s been a delight to talk to. Earlier this month at 2011 Wimbledon, she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal, falling to Petra Kvitova in three sets in a match that she said was under her control. The following is Matt Cronin’s Q and A with her at Stanford.

CRONIN: What was it like going back to Belarus after reaching the Wimbledon semifinals?

AZARENKA: It was good and a lot of people were happy for me, I went to see the new tennis center and they have a lot of kids there and I had a chat with them. I was also busy shooting some things [she will appear in Tennis Channel’s Tennisography]. I was trying to be low key and spend time with my family and friends.

CRONIN: When you are in Minsk how may people recognize you?

AZARENKA: A lot. There's a funny story. I got fined as pedestrian when I was running, I ran through a red light. I enjoy privileges like not getting speeding tickets and they are really generous to me, but getting fined as a pedestrian is ridiculous. I was just doing my workout and had my headphones on and I see a car pull over and they said, ‘Excuse Ma’am you just ran through a red light.’ I said, ‘But it’s 8:30 in the morning and there's no one there. They said, ‘You still can’t do that. I thought they were joking. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ And they said yeah. I was glad I had some money with me to buy some water. I don’t know if they knew who I was. Maybe they just wanted to make a huge joke with me.

CRONIN: Do people come up to you in street and say congratulations?

AZARENKA: Of course when you go to the tennis center, people come up and ask for autographs, but people in Belarus are pretty relaxed about that stuff. They might recognize you and might point at you. But some places they ask, ‘Are you Victoria,’ and I say no. I look a lot different off court than I do on.

CRONIN: What about when go to nightclubs?

AZARENKA: I went to one club with my girlfriend and she wanted to order a song for me and they said no, we don’t announce the names, just the songs, so they played the song and we were dancing and just before I went to the bathroom, I hear, ‘Hello everybody tonight at the club we have special guest, Victoria Azarenka,’ and I thought, isn’t the club where you don’t announce names? That was funny.

CRONIN: Do you feel like you are a celebrity?

AZARENKA: I don’t want to be that. I’ve been asked to go on different kinds of shows but I don’t do it. Maybe after my career, but I’m a professional tennis player and that’s what I want to be. I’m comfortable with [being known], but I just don’t want to mix it too much. I’m happy to do a lot of press related to tennis, but I don’t want to go too much into the pop world.”

CRONIN: Because then you think people won’t take you seriously as a tennis player?

AZARENKA: No. It’s about me and it’s personal and it’s not about other people’s opinions.

CRONIN: You are comfortable doing media now, but in prior years that wasn’t the case?

AZARENKA: I wouldn’t say I wasn’t comfortable, but I wasn’t introduced to it much and educated how to deal with media. I owe a lot to my current team because they made me understand how important it is to give back. Because we just don’t play for ourselves, we play for the people. You guys have your jobs, which are important as well, and we have to appreciate it.

CRONIN: So did you feel that you didn’t want to reveal parts of yourself?

AZARENKA: I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t understand the purpose of it. I was a 15 and 16-year-old girl who was always independent and my parents were not around too much [she was sent by her parents to the Arizona early in her life to develop a player] and I didn’t realize [it was important]. I actually regret that stuff a lot because I could have turned around a few things and people getting to know me better, not starting now and that would have been more in my favor. But I have time.

CRONIN: Not everyone is like your good friend Caroline Wozniacki, who received media training at an early age and is naturally talkative.

AZARENKA: Plus the Belarusian’s have different mentality. We are Eastern Europeans, it was part of the USSR and we were closed and didn't have that openness. You learn and when you start to understand it, it’s actually exciting.

CRONIN: And you get the chance to talk a lot about yourself and not that many people in the world are asked about themselves everyday.

AZARENKA: It’s great and I realize how much people want to know me better off court than on court and it’s quite amazing. I’m really glad I understand and I’m going through the phases where people are getting to me to know. I'm a very entertaining person if you get to know me better. The first impression [of me] on court is difficult to judge. The media can make you good, or make you bad.

CRONIN: A number of star players have had the experience of the being built up and broken down by the press. It can be difficult because a player cannot write her own story every day.

AZARENKA: You can’t, but it’s very important to be open and really show yourself. You don’t want to be fake. There are a lot of players who are made up and they have this image they have to follow, and for me, I think, ‘Screw that,’ I am who I am.

CRONIN: You want to be your own person.

AZARENKA: I don’t want to be, I’m always gonna be.

CRONIN: But there have to be times in press conferences when, for example, you might be asked a question about another player and you might think one thing, but don’t want to say it because you don’t want to offend her, so you say 'I don’t know.'

AZARENKA: I don’t want to judge. Everyone has their own opinions and goes their own way. I’m my own person and I don’t want to criticize someone else. It’s other people jobs to do that.

CRONIN: It seems like having friends on tour is important to you because you seem social.

AZARENKA: For me it’s not about having friends, it’s about being civilized and a good person. It’s a matter of being respectful. It's difficult to deal with other people sometimes because you are in your zone and trying to focus and someone keeps asking you a question and you don’t mean [to respond] in a bad way, it’s just the wrong time.

CRONIN: I remember at Wimbledon when some reporter asked you question about your grunting later in the tournament and I could tell you were a little angry.

AZARENKA: It just sometimes it gets to such a ridiculous point, that I have no comments about that. It’s funny to me that people spend all this money to measure how loud [the grunting is]. Go give your money to someone else. C'mon.

CRONIN: You are a top 5 player now, you’ve won big hard court tournaments before, and you’ve beaten a lot of top 10 players. It looks like to me that if you stay healthy you should be a serious contender at the US Open, just like you were at Wimbledon.

AZARENKA: One of my goals is to go there and win the title, but there a lot of things that have to come together and I have to be really focused on improving my game to get all things together for the big events.

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Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning
TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”