LONDON, England - Not once in the long five months between match victories - and we're borrowing a phrase from Maria Sharapova here - did Victoria Azarenka throw herself a pity party. "I didn't get depressed, I didn't have a dark moment," Azarenka said in an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com - and the impression is that it was her dialogue with her fanbase that helped to keep her balanced and motivated while her foot was healing.
Perhaps some other players going through rehabilitation, and missing the adrenaline-feed of competition, would have withdrawn from the sport and from their supporters. That wasn't how Azarenka, twice an Australian Open champion, chose to deal with her enforced break. "I kept engaging with fans as much as possible. I met with a couple of fans after tweeting them. I felt that was important to keep them informed and to keep them close to me. They had shown me so much support, including sending me videos and messages and toys," said Azarenka, who also continued to follow her friends' results on the WTA.
Azarenka's absence from the circuit - her opening round victory over Croatia's Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on the Wimbledon grass brought up her first win since January's Australian Open - has only strengthened the relationship between the athlete and her public. "Those messages from my fans gave me so much motivation. For me, the most satisfying thing is when a kid sends me a picture or a message saying that I have inspired them to play tennis. I feel honoured and really grateful about that. I used to be one of those kids and if I had had an opportunity to have spoken to one of my idols, I would have been over-the-moon happy," said Azarenka, her playful side on display at the All England Club with her fingernails painted the colours of the Argentine football team (because Lionel Messi is "cute"), and with her anecdotes about her new interest in throwing paint around a canvas.
So Azarenka's a football fan, and she's an artist, too. But it's still tennis that gives this 24-year-old from Belarus the most pleasure. "I encourage young kids, young girls, to play tennis. I think that one of the best outlets for kids is tennis, and all sports. It helps you to build your character. Even if you don't want to play professionally, it gives you some sort of understanding about discipline and competition. I think tennis helps you with life."
Most of all, Azarenka missed the competition. "I love playing tennis and I love competing - doing that really brings a lot of joy to me to be out there on court, so I'm always going to miss it when I'm not able to do that," she said. "But I didn't get depressed because I always believed that I could recover from the injury. I was just focusing on what I had to do to make that happen. I wasn't thinking, 'Why is this happening?' What was important was to find a way of recovering from the injury. I think that helped to keep me motivated and to keep me going."
Azarenka's break has changed how she sees tennis. "Playing tennis is more fun now," she said. "Sometimes you need a little bit of a break. You do realise, when you're away, how much you enjoy it. When you're caught in a daily routine, maybe you don't realise how much you enjoy it," said Azarenka, who is playing without pain. "Of course, I have goals for the rest of the year, but I always take it one match at a time. My goals have never been about rankings; it has always been about trying to win tournaments. Everywhere I go, no matter where I'm coming from, I want to win. So that's the objective, and the goals are there, but the effort has to stay in the present moment."
Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis writer based in London. He is working on a new book that will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.