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A memorable year without titles: Victoria Azarenka’s come back to the tennis court

An outline of Victoria Azarenka’s performance this season, featuring the changes in her coaching team, her matches against major tennis stars, the improvements in her game, and the prospects for the 2016 Olympic season

This season, Belarus’ No.1 tennis player Victoria Azarenka has managed to move up only nine spots in the WTA rankings. For the first time since 2008, she hasn’t been seeded in a Grand Slam tournament, and hasn’t clinched any single titles. However, the year 2015 has been quiet memorable for Victoria Azarenka. After a long period, she has returned to the national tennis team, changed her coaching staff, almost defeated Serena Williams, reached one WTA final, and made significant progress.

We present a review of the pre-Olympic season of the former No.1 in the world, and answer the question “What are we to expect from her next year?”

 

What was the reason for “a break-up” with Azarenka’s coach?

Victoria Azarenka has started this season being World No.31. The Belarusian had such a spot in the rankings due to her ankle injury and then due to a setback that forced Victoria to miss part of the season in 2014.

In summer, she tried to return to the court, but because of poor physical health she failed to advance to the fourth rounds of the WTA tournaments. Only at the US Open she managed to reach the last eight. The former World No.1 was hardly satisfied with that result, taking into account the fact that in 2012 and 2013 she was a runner-up on the Flushing Meadows courts in New York (In both finals, the Belarusian lost to Serena Williams (No.1) of the USA – ed.). After the tournament in Tokyo, she announced the early end of the season, missing the Asian swing and the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.

Thus, Victoria Azarenka didn’t manage to defend the points, got at the tournaments in Brisbane, Melbourne, Doha, Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Carlsbad, Cincinnati, New York, Beijing, and the WTA Finals, dropping out of the WTA Top-30.

Year 2015 marked another series of mishaps, as Victoria Azarenka’s plans for the beginning of the season failed outright. According to that plan, she had to stay in the Top-32 to be among the seeded players at major competitions, and if everything is okay, she had to get a rapid rise in the rankings to avoid tough opponents in the draws.

In her opener in Brisbane, Azarenka lost to Karolina Pliskova (now ranked No.11) of the Czech Republic. In that match, the Belarusian’s footwork was not perfect, but the opponent gave her chances for a win. Vika made more unforced errors than Karolina, was not so great in the attacking game as her rival. As a result, a three-set defeat, moving down 13 spots, and a fail to be the seeded tennis player at the Australian Open that she won twice – in 2012 and 2013.

By the way, it has been the first time since 2008, when Victoria Azarenka hasn’t been among the seeded at a Grand Slam tournament.

Victoria had a successful start in Melbourne: she advanced to the fourth round, beating such seeded players as Sloane Stephens of the USA, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, falling to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia. The statistics was rather equal, but Dominika’s mobility and great feeling of the court mattered most. The Slovakian was in good shape thanks to regular practice, and Vika lacked that. Again, Azarenka had misfortune. On the other hand, it’s doubtful she expected an easy comeback to the WTA tour.

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The most surprising news of that part of the season was the fact that after the Australian Open Victoria Azarenka stopped cooperation with her coach Sam Sumyk. She has worked with him for five years and has clinched her major victories: two Grand Slam titles, fifteen Premier victories, the Olympic gold medal in the mixed doubles, the bronze medal in the singles in London; she has also held the lead in the WTA rankings for fifty one weeks.

Perhaps, after an array of fails, in January, 2015, it happened – Vika and Sam definitely wanted to try something new, because their relationship went to deadlock.

Let us note that at that time Victoria Azarenka has worked only with two coaches in her career. Apart from Sumyk, she collaborated with Antonio Van Grichen. The Portuguese coach, as well as Sam, has been a member of Vika’s team for five consecutive seasons. There’s no need to mention the break-up with Sam, who has become almost a family member for the recent years, was a serious shock for Azarenka, even despite the fact that it was logical.

 

Azarenka’s comeback to Fed Cup team

In a difficult moment for her, Victoria found support and encouragement in February, when she joined the national team, awaiting her with open arms. It is not surprising everyone was happy to see Azarenka – one of the most successful tennis players of the modern time has not taken part in Fed Cup matches since 2011. For Vika, it was also a great chance to get the practice she needed.

In Fed Cup matches in Budapest, Vika worked with zeal, and despite low-quality courts, she used opportunities to seize the initiative, even losing 0:3 down. She showed she was strong mentally, making everyone be confident she’ll get what she wants.

As a result, Azarenka helped the team to advance to Fed Cup World Group II. Then, in April, the Belarusians defeated the Japanese team. In Tokyo, Vika won two single matches and played the doubles with Olga Govortsova. Incidentally, the last time the best Belarusian tennis players played the doubles was in 2009, so long ago.

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It’s mostly Azarenka’s merit that now the Belarusian women’s tennis team is No.15 in the list of the best tennis teams in the world. Belarus’ team will hold next Fed Cup meeting against the Canadian national team on 6-7 February 2016. The matches will be staged in Quebec, Canada.

 

Azarenka’s only final match in 2015

The “break-up” with Sam Sumyk forced Victoria Azarenka to continue practicing hard. She was the only person responsible for her performance. She turned to Wim Fissette, who helped his compatriot Kim Clijsters to clinch the US Open crown twice. The Belgian coach, who didn’t work with any tennis players that time, took Vika’s offer.

Azarenka and Fissette’s collaboration began with the tournament in Doha. In her opening round, Victoria dismissed Angelique Kerber of Germany, who was in worse shape than the Belarusian. Kerber lost four matches out of six games played on the tour. During the match against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, Azarenka showed a wonderful footwork, playing much at the net. She also won the key points thanks to the experience 19-year-old Svitolina lacked. After that, in the third round, Azarenka got a 6:3, 6:1 win over Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

The real test for Azarenka was the match against the elder of the Williams sisters – Venus. In the opening set, the Belarusian committed many unforced errors, but then, in the second set and in the decider, she improved her game. Azarenka was very tired, but her excellent game at the net helped her to survive. The American was not prepared for that, she started making a lot of faults. At the end of the meeting, Vika was so exhausted, but still she outperformed Venus!

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So, that was Azarenka’s way to the final in Doha. Earlier, she beat there Serena Williams in 2013, Samantha Stosur in 2012. In 2015, the Belarusian lost to Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic – 4:6, 3:6. After such a long break, Vika had no chances to win the title.

However, Azarenka’s visit to the main city of Qatar was quite a success. In February, 2015, for the first time since January, 2014, she has played a Premier final match. That final in Doha was the only one for Vika in 2015, the year without titles.

It is foolish to deny that the final in Doha was emotional for Vika, who, undoubtedly, has long been anxious to get rid of her setbacks. Terminating her work with Sumyk, the desire to win only intensified.

By the way, after the tournament in Qatar, Victoria moved up ten spots to the World No.38.

 

Azarenka’s matches against Serena Williams and other tennis stars

The match Victoria Azarenka vs. Serena Williams is a blockbuster of the today’s women’s tour. Vika knows how to stun Serena. She has defeated her three times, and several times she has been so close to the victory. However, let us remind you that Williams leads in her head-to-head series against Azarenka, 17-3.

In 2015, the Belarusian tennis player had three attempts to upset Serena – in Madrid, Paris, and London.

On the clay courts of Madrid, Azarenka lost the first set in a tiebreaker; in the second half of the second set, she started playing aggressively, which forced the rival to hit the racket against the court. In the decider, the Belarusian made a come-back from 0:3 down, but then lost the third-set tiebreak. It should be mentioned that in the penultimate game of the set, Azarenka had a triple match point, but she lost the chance to clinch a victory. For the first time since August, 2013, she was so close to dismiss Williams!

Incidentally, Victoria has never held off Serena at the Grand Slam; all her wins were made at other tournaments. Azarenka’s next failures at Roland Garros and Wimbledon were not a surprise.

The matches in Paris and London were rather similar. Vika secured the first set, hurting William’s feelings, making her feel uncomfortable on the court. However, in such cases Serena usually starts playing better, and when Vika is great at the baseline, serves well, makes sliced shots, shocking backhands and forehands, Williams begins doing the same and even better. For example, Vika has seven aces (which is great for her in the match against the World number one), and Serena makes seventeen aces! Azarenka comes to the net and converts eleven wins out of fifteen! But the American has a higher percentage at the net (by ten points). Vika plays almost without faults (eleven unforced errors), and Serena has 12.

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As a result, Azarenka hasn’t upset Serena Williams in 2015. Moreover, Azarenka lost twice to Maria Sharapova. After that, the Russian started leading their head-to-head series, 8-7. Once she fell to Romanian Simona Halep in a very important for Victoria quarterfinal match of the US Open. In New York, she aimed to reach the final, but she failed.

However, this season, Azarenka knocked out Caroline Wozniacki four times, while the Dane was in the WTA Top-8. Azarenka’s 6-2, 6-3 surprise over world No.4 Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati (the match lasted 1h 28 min) was her first win over a Top-4 tennis player since beating Serena Williams in the finals of Cincinnati on Sunday, August 18, 2013. Williams was ranked No.1 at that time.

 

Azarenka’s best match in 2015

Perhaps, the best match in 2015 for Victoria Azarenka has been not the one in which she competed against Serena Williams. Without any doubts, she played as a fighter, but Williams was a hero. Therefore, we have decided to cover the match against Angelique Kerber of Germany within the third round of the US Open.

Before the match, the situation was the following. Azarenka has never lost to Kerber, and judging by the way the girls played in Doha in February, Victoria neither should have problems in the US Open match. However, their meeting turned to be a tough and a captivating one; the players showed a spectacular game, and the end of the match was quite unpredictable.

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Early in the match, with her deep shots and readiness to run for every ball and to hold the initiative, Vika made it clear she was highly concentrated. The German made passing shots when the Belarusian was approaching the net, coped with Vika’s drop shots, played five feet from the baseline and committed few errors. Angelique Kerber pushed dangerous forehands (she’s left-handed). For Azarenka it was difficult to respond. In general, such dominance allowed Kerber to seize a 5:2 lead and have a set point.

In the middle of the opening set, Victoria recovered her composure and started playing to Angelique’s backhand, as Kerber got much time to strike those shots with the two hands and hit them in the center of the court, where Azarenka got use of them. She used every Kerber’s hitch to make the winning points. These tactical moves allowed Vika to rebound five consecutive games to clinch the first set.

In the second set, Azarenka decided to play direct tennis against Kerber. Victoria hit the ball to the half court, thus, providing her rival the opportunity to rebound some games. This time, having a 5:2 lead, the German converted the first set point, winning the second set. She closed the set with a fantastic drop shot!

In the decider, Azarenka started playing the successful game she showed at the beginning of the meeting. She attacked with deep and wide spin shots.

Despite the fact that Kerber threw everything she had at Azarenka, from deft drop shots to ruthless passing shots to unforgiving ground strokes, the Belarusian had an answer for each rally. And after nearly three hours of play, Azarenka asserted her presence with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 win that proved she can still win the big matches.

Between Azarenka’s 51 winners and Kerber’s 46, the entire match was a back-and-forth roller coaster of momentum swings and clutch plays. The match featured 12 breaks of serve combined and 26 break-point chances erased, as both women raised their game to play big on the important points. Not only did the crowd get a treat from that thriller, but the players enjoyed it just as much.

This match lasted 2 hours and 51 minutes. It could have been the most longstanding match for Azarenka this year if it were not for a ridiculous misunderstanding in her first match (against Pliskova) that lasted 3 hours and 13 minutes. Still, these matches are not to be compared, as that against Kerber was a high-quality one.

 

Azarenka’s new team

We have already mentioned Victoria Azarenka’s coach Wim Fissette. Now, we are only to add that the parties agreed that Fissette would work with Azarenka only during the tournaments. The thing is that the tennis specialist should follow his Academy’s private affairs; moreover, in summer his wife gave birth to another child, so Wim had to be present at home.

Vika made concessions, as she praised the first experience of joint work with Wim. Besides, she was not accustomed to change coaches as gloves.

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Once Fissette could not support and train Azarenka all the time, she needed someone who would train her daily. That man turned to be Serena Williams’ former sparring partner, Sasha Bazhin. He joined Vika’s team in March, on the eve of the tournament in Indian Wells, the USA.

The German of Serbian origin has helped Williams for eight years, so Vika was sure about his high skills. Sasha perfectly suited, as he used to be near the tennis player he was working with. Furthermore, it seems that over the last six months, Vika and Sasha have become real friends, which is important in such business as tennis.

Another important event was famous physiotherapist Jean-Pierre Brewer’s joining Vika’s team after a half year break. Azarenka believes it was the French doctor who helped her to be in great shape and top the WTA rankings. He watched Vika’s movements on the court, preventing injuries; he also followed Azarenka’s practice in the gym. The way of doing exercises influences the player’s health and muscle mass development; therefore, no one is to underestimate Brewer’s importance for Azarenka.

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In addition, in the second half of 2015, Victoria Azarenka replaced largest French media group Lagardere, where Sam Sumyk’s wife, Meilen Tu, managed her business, by IMG. Now, Vika is supervised by Carlos Fleming, whose clients are Venus Williams, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marcos Baghdatis, and Nick Kyrgios. IMG will care about Azarenka’s new advertising contracts.

 

Preview of Azarenka’s game in 2016

Azarenka’s team has had four changes in 2015. Typically, in sports, such changes need lapping, identifying weaknesses and improving skills, sometimes even a change in the playing style. In other words, one should not expect rapid positive results after such significant changes. Vika’s moving up nine spots in the WTA rankings this year proves that. But one can get pleasure following the process of improving Azarenka’s game components.

By summer, Victoria has been in good shape and has been ready to play tough matches. In addition, her service has been improved significantly. She worked hard on the first serve during her practice sessions, trying to hit the service to remote places and making her shots more powerful. Already in spring one could notice the progress in this direction, as well as in her game at the net. Furthermore, Azarenka trained her smashes, drive-volleys and other shots with varying success.

Are there any other components Victoria should work on? The percentage of the first service in the second half of each meeting is getting worse, which forces her to fight for seizing the initiative in the rallies. Improving this aspect she can significantly alleviate her life. Belarusian’s drop shots lack finesse. They are high over the net and even for one of the most heavyweight players in the WTA tour, Serena Williams, they are easy to respond. The Belarusian’s shots also lack airiness, which would allow her to hover over the court to chase the ball.

Victoria Azarenka promises to be well prepared for the new season. She has everything to keep the word. First of all, the talent, experience, the team of specialists she formed by herself, and the way of practicing she’s familiar with.

Vika’s desire to perform well at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro should also motivate the Belarusian tennis player to play better every day, every match.

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Probably the only thing that can significantly complicate Victoria’s life is her position in the rankings. For now, she is No.22 in the world and from this spot she’ll start the Australian Open in January, 2016. In order to have a favorable seeding at the Olympics, in August, she should move up about 10 spots. She legs behind Angelique Kerber, the World No.10, fewer points than it is needed to win a Grand Slam title.

Is she able to clinch it? Of course, she is. Even this unsuccessful (judging by the results), but quite memorable season she undoubtedly showed the game of a player from the WTA Top-5. Although, if we counted Victoria’s titles, these words would not be an excuse for her.

In general, the Belarusian tennis player should be highly concentrated in the first half of the season to be sure she’ll be preparing for a trip to Brazil without trouble or anxiety.

 

 

Text by TUT.BY

Pictures by TUT.BY, Reuters

About Yana Yelina (30 Articles)
Yana is a fresh graduate of Minsk State Linguistic University. So it is not surprising she adores languages (English, Spanish, Italian). She's also a sports fan, and she won't lose an opportunity to watch some tennis/football/snooker matches. Moreover, she is nuts about travelling, dancing and reading.

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