janvier 28, 2023

Two-time Australian champ Azarenka backs Djokovic after injury doubts

3 min read

Victoria Azarenka went in to bat for Novak Djokovic, saying tennis players are « not villains » after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals for the first time in a decade.

She beat third seed Jessica Pegula 6-4, 6-1 on Tuesday to return to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park for the first time since those triumphs in 2012 and 2013.

Djokovic’s hamstring has been a source of contention among commentators and fans, with some accusing the former world No.1 of faking the injury despite the Serbian star missing several practices in the lead up to the tournament.

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How Azarenka conquered ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’

Former world No.1 Azarenka said she understood the way Djokovic was feeling.

She came in for criticism when she took a medical timeout during her last semi-final at Melbourne Park in 2013, delaying her match against Sloane Stephens by 10 minutes.

The Belarusian, who is now 33, returned to beat Stephens and went on to defend her title.

She said: « Do you know what happened 10 years ago? That’s the thing.

« 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. I actually can resonate what Novak said the other day.

Watch the Australian Open live and free on the Nine Network: Channel 9, 9Gem and 9NOW.

« There is sometimes incredible desire for a villain and a hero story that has to be written. But we’re not villains, we’re not heroes, we are regular human beings that go through so many, many things.

« Assumptions and judgements, all those comments, are just s— 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.

« Actually it’s funny that you’re saying that because I was thinking about it. It took me 10 f—– years to get over it. I finally am over that. »

After the match, Azarenka — the person — opened up about how, away from the court in recent months, she managed to learn a new mindset by, in her words, “Trying to be neutral, not to go negative; accepting the anxiety that I have; accepting the fear that I have.”

Novak brushes aside injury question

And that, too, she explained, allowed her to deal with a fear of failure and play once again to the very best of her considerable abilities, which she certainly did against Pegula, who hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament and ceded only 18 games through four matches.

The two — her professional and personal lives — “are definitely connected,” Azarenka said.

“I don’t think that one goes without the other. I feel like a tennis court — probably for everybody, but for me, especially — triggers a lot of those fears, a lot of anxiety,” she continued. “It’s kind of like an open canvas. When everything comes there at a high-pressure moment, high-stress moment, weird emotions come on the court. Sometimes, like, ‘What … are you thinking about on the court?’”

A key turning point, one that helped her realise she needed to confront what was bothering her, came when she broke a few racquets after a loss at a tournament in October.

“I don’t think you recognise it right away. I think it builds up until you hit kind of a pretty bad spot where nothing kind of makes sense. You feel kind of lost,” Azarenka said.

“I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything that I feel good about myself. Not like even one sentence.”

The No.24-seeded Azarenka’s semi-final opponent will be No.22 Elena Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, who defeated 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4.

Rybakina — who was born in Moscow but has represented Kazakhstan since 2018 because it offered to fund her tennis career — hit 11 aces to take her tournament-leading total to 35.

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