Ascending the summit
[b]The name Victoria Azarenko is known to everyone these days, as she has just won the Australian Open Championship — the first Grand Slam tournament this season. At the age of 23, she is now seeded number one worldwide and has beaten all Belarusian tennis records. How has she managed to succeed and what path took her to the top? Moreover, what are her next plans?[/b] Nikolay Mirny once said, “Each young tennis player must have a parent guiding them and taking care of them close by.”
Nikolay Mirny once said, “Each young tennis player must have a parent guiding them and taking care of them close by.” He accompanied his son, Max Mirny, on his difficult path from Minsk MAZ’s sports school to the board of honour at the entrance of the Arthur Ashe Stadium (where Max has several times won the US Open Championship). Victoria Azarenko’s guardian is her mother, Alla, who manages her daughter’s career and does everything possible to support her first hand. Max’s father put everything aside to join his son from the earliest age, while Vika built her career independently at first. Luckily, she has always been surrounded by people who are ready to help her develop.
“Actually, we never thought of Vika pursuing tennis,” recollects Alla Azarenko, recalling her daughter’s first, junior, success on court. “In childhood, she seemed unsuitable, being small, slim and really fragile. Moreover, Vika had no passion for tennis at that time. We were almost ready to end her tennis classes, as they were hard for her and we didn’t have much money to spare. Then, Valentina Rzhanykh appeared, becoming Vika’s most beloved coach.
Interestingly, Vika set off for France for her first international tournament alone. She was ten at the time but made her way through the airports and made no mistakes with her registration documents. Moreover, she sensationally won a doubles event. “Vika travelled to all her competitions independently,” notes Mrs. Azarenko. “Initially, I divided my official holidays into two periods, accompanying her to neighbouring countries mostly: Poland, Kiev or Moscow. When Vika went to her first tournament in France, it cost $200 a week, with meals and accommodation paid for by the organisers. For us, this was an incredibly large sum.”
However, that first success inspired sponsors to pay attention to the young sportswoman. At the age of 12, she easily won a tournament — organised by Head; it led to her first contract with this sports equipment clothing company. However, Beltechexport took on most of her expenses, enabling Azarenko not only to take part in tournaments but to continue her training at the Klaus Hofsaess Tennis Academy (Spain). Interestingly, Mr. Hofsaess took a personal interest in Vika; in the past, he had promoted famous Steffi Graf, showing his talent for spotting rising stars. Before long, Victoria had brilliantly won junior events at the Australian and US Open.
During her career, Vika has attended many schools and studied with various experts. She has participated in numerous tournaments — including junior and those of the highest level. Like many tennis stars, she has trained in the USA, attending the legendary Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and the less famous (yet illustrious) Saddlebrook — where Azarenko began on moving to America.
Another circumstance influenced her choice of school: friendship with the family of famous hockey goalkeeper Nikolay Khabibullin, who lived not far from the Academy. Alla recollects, “They are wonderful people and our great friends. I’ve known Viktoria — Nikolay’s wife — for a long time; she was a Minsker. Vika lived at their house in America and the Khabibullins became her second family. I’m unsure whether she would have reached her present heights without their support. Vika lived in a family atmosphere, being surrounded by Russian speakers, cuisine and shops. If she’d needed to adjust to an alien country while enduring a crazy schedule who knows what may have happened.”
However, Vika succeeded — as proven by her history of wins. In 2003, she debuted at an adult championship but lost twice in the first round (to Ramat Hasharon and Haifa), partnering her old friend from Belarus, Olga Govortsova. By 2005, she had won her first adult tournament, in Luxemburg.
The 2007 US Open Championship was the next stage in the Belarusian tennis player’s career. The season (except for finals in Estoril and Tashkent) wasn’t too lucky, but she did do well in the US tournament and, for the first time in her career, reached the fourth round in the singles. Partnering Max Mirny, she won the mixed pairs. Interestingly, Max’s own major success also began in the same way; in 1998, the 21 year old Belarusian celebrated his first win at the National Tennis Centre, partnering Serena Williams. “Looking back, I realise that my career could have followed another path without that mixed match. I might have become another Mirny — not the sportsman known today. Neither I, nor Serena were truly in demand at an international level at that time; accordingly, the US Open win gave a powerful impetus to our further successes,” Max notes. “I’ve known Vika since she came to tennis school at the age of five. On seeing her progress, I’m convinced that she could achieve even greater success,” he smiles.
Successes were not long in coming. A year later, Azarenko could only be stopped by such acknowledged tennis masters as Dinara Safina or the Williams sisters. Her other worst enemy was herself, as she suffered several injuries, leading to missed matches. Without these, she may have captured her Grand Slam win much earlier. Moreover, the Beijing Olympic tournament could have brought greater success. In 2008, she had to end four matches early and, in 2009, did so twice (during the Australian Open and the final tournament in Doha). In 2010, six matches were called off (including at the US Open). Her new coach, Sam Sumyk, blames incorrect training. Initially, Azarenko had no problems with her health.
Importantly, her fiery start this season — winning in Brisbane and at the Australian Open — has placed her in number one position worldwide. This is largely due to her consistent play and lack of injury. She has been in good health since the end of the last season — when she took part in the final tournament of the Masters series for the second time in her career, eventually winning. Sadly, she is now feeling less fit, on the eve of the Fed Cup match between the USA and Belarus; the winner will go through to the World Group. Victoria has decided to stand down, causing great disappointment to her team.
“Since the beginning of the Australian Open, I’ve been suffering from back pain but hoped to restore my health. Sadly, I just don’t have time,” Victoria explains. “It’s sad not to take part in such a tournament but my efforts in Australia have required much physical strength. My body needs a short rest.”
Being a star brings a cocktail of presentations, parties and sponsorship events. It would be easy to let it all go to your head but Vika has kept her feet on the ground. She’s much tougher these days and more selective in her communication, yet remains sincere — a quality much appreciated by everyone. Last year, a photo session placed her among the 15 sexiest women worldwide and Vika tests new Porsche cars with pleasure, as well as attending parties and charity events. The most memorable was organised last year, with Dutch Caroline Wozniacki (seeded first globally at that time). They visited the Belarusian Republican Centre of Children’s Haematology and Oncology and, later, played a charity match: all the funds raised went to treating young patients. She played a similar match this winter in Thailand, sending all the money earned to those affected by the floods.
“I’m happy to know that my popularity brings joy to others as well as myself,” Victoria explains, talking of her charity work. “It’s incredible to organise events which help someone else. Being among the best sportswomen in the world is a great honour and a huge responsibility. With this in mind, I never plan to stop!”
By Dmitry Komarov