Azarenka connects in the clutch
The axiom is, without fail, correct: tennis is about winning the big points. There are but a handful of them in every match. Momentum hinges on them. Confidence depends on them, too. But excelling at them is easier said than done. Just ask Victoria Azarenka, who was one of the tour’s most promising players for years but never could engineer a breakthrough worthy of her talents on the game’s biggest stages.
For a long time it seemed like Azarenka, always a world-class ball striker with exceptional movement, innately intuitive court sense and a champions pugnacity, would never figure out a way to stop sabotaging her own best interests with temper tantrums and on-court anxiety.
Was she a choker? That would be a stretch. Maybe a disappointment is more like it.
For Azarenka, the talent was always there. So was the fire. What she lacked was the belief.
But in 2012, disappointment is in the rearview mirror and getting smaller by the day. Belief, meanwhile, is showing up in spades.
Today, in a hard-fought, three-set battle with defending U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Azarenka proved what she’s been proving all year: that she’s clutch. And never more so then at 5-5 in the third-set tiebreaker when she played what was no doubt the most courageous shot of this year’s US Open.
After Stosur’s attempt at a down-the-line winner clipped the net cord and bounced near the service line, Azarenka pranced into the mid-court and feathered a drop shot ever so delicately over the net. It was surprising to say the least, and it landed far out of the reach of Stosur, who hardly even made an attempt at the ball.
It seemed a crazy shot to play, but to Azarenka it made complete sense. “I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t be a chicken. Come on. Just go for your shots,’” said Azarenka, after her 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(5) victory over Stosur.
The moment was sublime. Not so much the decision to play the dropshot, but the manner of execution. Azarenka was loose, clearly unruffled by the implications of the moment. She had done what so many other athletes try to do and fail: taken her mind out of the equation and let her body flow freely as it has been trained to do.
On the very next point she confidently closed Stosur out.
“I was just trying to stay in the moment,” Azarenka said on Tuesday, after reaching her first US Open semifinal. “Because one or two shots will just, you know, decide everything. So I felt I had to come with something different. I had the dropshot. I showed some good hands, I guess.”
Azarenka’s explanation of her decision making process helps us understand how she has been able to remain undefeated through all eleven of her three-set matches in 2012. That’s a remarkable record in its own right, but given that Azarenka’s career record in three-set matches before 2012 was 50-45, it’s miraculous.
But for Azarenka, the real miracle has been the realizations she’s made to get to this place. Once an angst-ridden, helter-skelter bundle of nerves in big matches, Azarenka has come to trust herself on the tennis court. She’s always had the shots. She’s always had the desire. Now, she’s got the mental game too.
Azarenka, much like Maria Sharapova, who also owns an 11-0 record in deciding sets in 2012, believes that courage is the key to success in pressure situations. Rather than wait for good fortune, Azarenka knows that fortune favors the bold. “I’m just calmer when I face a break point,” said Azarenka, “because I just feel like I have to go for my shots.”
That methodology worked for Azarenka on another big point this afternoon. She was faced with a break point at 5-5 in the third set, just a mere five points from losing the match. What did she do? She reared back and fired her only ace of the afternoon.
“I had to come up and be strong,” said Azarenka, “so I was like, ‘Okay. Let’s do it. If I miss it, I miss it.’”
As Azarenka awaits Sharapova in the semifinals, she can be comforted by the fact that her effort today assured that she’ll hang on to the No. 1 ranking no matter what happens for the rest of the US Open.
Was she excited?
Not too much.
“It’s means a lot,” she said, “but it’s nothing like lifting a trophy.”
If she keeps winning the big points, that trophy may soon be hers to lift.