Weary of playing the waiting game, Victoria Azarenka burst through to her first career Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Marion Bartoli in last month's Brisbane final.
It was Azarenka's fifth career final. The 19-year-old from Minsk, Belarus was runner-up at Estoril and Tashkent in 2007 and at Gold Coast and Prague in 2008.
"Everybody says the third time is the charm, but for me it's the fifth one — I'm just glad I finally got it!" Azarenka said after the match.
She followed that effort with her first career appearance in the Australian Open fourth round where she took the first set from eventual-champion Serena Williams, 6-3, before retiring with an illness trailing 2-4 in the second set. Though she could not finish the match, in that one set of attacking baseline tennis, Azarenka showed the skills that make her one of tennis' top rising talents. A shift in her mind set and the ability to separate points into solitary moments has helped Azarenka post a 10-1 record this season.
"The way I was thinking on court was very different from before," Azarenka said. "I was playing every point, no matter what happened. I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was playing in a final. I was thinking it was a regular match, regular points. There weren't any nerves."
Azarenka partnered compatriot Max Mirnyi to capture the 2007 US Open mixed doubles championship and left an impression on her partner.
"Victoria is a hard worker, she's always trying to improve and she certainly is talented," Mirnyi said. "If she continues to work hard I think you will see her get better and better."
The 5-foot-10 Azarenka won the 2005 Australian Open and US Open junior championships and completed that season as the ITF junior World No. 1. Success at the junior level does not necessarily translate to the pro circuit. Since 1997, only one girl who has held the ITF girls' year-end top spot — 2001 ITF year-end No. 1 Svetlana Kuznetsova — has gone on to win a professional Grand Slam singles title. In the span, only Kuznetsova and Jelena Dokic, the 1998 ITF junior year-end No. 1 player, have cracked the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's top 10.
Several coaches believe the 14th-ranked Azarenka has the ability to be a top-10 player, perhaps as soon as this summer.
"Azarenka hits big from both sides, she has a very good serve, and moves well for a tall girl," legendary coach Nick Bollettieri said. "If you give Azarenka too many defensive balls, you're in trouble because she knows how to finish points."
Azarenka is seeded second at this week's Regions Morgan Keegan Championships & Cellular South Cup in Memphis where she's reached the quarterfinals with a pair of straight-sets victories. She is partnering Caroline Wozniacki in the doubles draw and the pair could meet in the singles final.
Tennis Week caught up with her for this interview.
Tennis Week: Victoria, who did you like to watch when you were growing up?
Victoria Azarenka: Steffi Graf was my favorite player since I was a very young girl. I always enjoyed watching her, I loved her game, the way she played and how focused she was on the court. I also liked the way she behaved on court. So I always liked Steffi and was very happy I had the opportunity to play with her in an exhibition once. It was an unbelievable opportunity.
Tennis Week: How did you prepare for this season during the offseason?
Victoria Azarenka: I feel like I really tried to take the time to improve in the offseason. I spent a lot of time training both on the court and off the court. I feel stronger now. I worked a lot on my fitness so I feel I can play four or five matches in a row at a pretty high level now. I think that's the main thing: all the work you put in in the offseason makes you stronger and gives you a little more confidence that you can play very hard match after match and still stay strong.
Tennis Week: You broke through to win your first career title in Brisbane in January. How did your experience of playing in four prior finals prepare you for the Brisbane final and did you approach it any differently than your prior finals?
Victoria Azarenka: The experience of playing in those finals definitely helps. Of course, you always want to win, but sometimes you want to win so badly it can almost work against you. So the way I was thinking on court was very different from before. I wasn't trying to think 'This is another final, this is a big opportunity.' Instead, I was playing every point, no matter what happened. I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was playing in a final. I was thinking it was a regular match, regular points. There weren't any nerves. I think that helped me win it because I just stayed really focused on every point. Also, I had two tough matches in the earlier rounds there (beating Jarmila Gajdosova, 7-6(4), 7-5 and Lucie Safarova, 7-6(5), 6-4). I had to fight hard to win those matches so I tried to keep that mentality when I played the final. It's the last match so you have to give everything you have and stay positive no matter what. I was very, very happy to win my first title there. It feels great to finally do it.
Tennis Week: How do you prepare mentally before a match? What do you do while you're waiting to go on court?
Victoria Azarenka: I like to read so I'll try to read a book. I listen to music. I like hip hop and R & B so usually I just try to sit quietly, think about what type of match I want to play and either read or listen to music to kind of relax.
Tennis Week: What's your biggest weapon on court?
Victoria Azarenka: I think my backhand is my best shot. That's the shot I feel really comfortable hitting, but I'm really working on all my shots.
Tennis Week: Among the current players, who do you admire?
Victoria Azarenka: I like Roger Federer for his professionalism on and off the court and for how he treats people and how much respect he has for the sport.
Tennis Week: You're already in the top 20, what's your ultimate goal?
Victoria Azarenka: Well, like so many players I would like to win a Grand Slam title someday and try to get to No. 1. That's really what everyone works toward so that's what I would like to try to achieve. I know it's a lot of hard work and takes time, but that's the ultimate goal. That's really one of the great things about tennis: no matter who you are or where you are ranked you can always work hard and improve and that's what I'm trying to do.