PARIS, France - After feeling "very low", "insecure" and distressed in the opening weeks of the season, Victoria Azarenka is back to being her usual confident self on the tennis court again after turning to a psychologist for help.
"Considering where we were in January, and where we are now, I'm very pleased - I can see the confident Vika again," Azarenka's coach, Wim Fissette, said of the Belarusian, who has reached two singles quarterfinals during the claycourt swing, in Stuttgart and Rome - and won the doubles title in Rome with Ashleigh Barty. "She's doing well now."
In an interview with wtatennis.com, Fissette said Azarenka committed to seeing a psychologist after a difficult start to the season. Following a first-round defeat in Auckland to Venus Williams, Azarenka lost in the opening round of the Australian Open, a tournament she had won twice before, to Laura Siegemund, a German then ranked 110 in the world.
Such was Azarenka's anguish at Melbourne Park she cried during her post-match news conference, in which she spoke of her "struggles" on and off the court. In later private conversations with Fissette and the rest of her team, Azarenka, 29, recognised she needed to address the mental side of her game.
"We had an excellent pre-season, where Vika did a lot of work, and I was hoping for, and expecting, a really good start to the year. We started in Auckland in January, and things weren't as expected, things weren't good. She wasn't the confident Vika that I knew before," said Fissette, who reunited with Azarenka during the close-season, having previously worked with the former World No.1 in 2015 and 2016.
"She didn't play really good tennis. She was insecure and she didn't play well. We were very low after the Australian Open, and I felt as though we were starting from zero. The experience in Australia... maybe we didn't work on the right things during the pre-season. After Australia, we worked on the right things and Vika did quite a lot of mental work. She committed to that part, with a psychologist. She felt it was necessary to work on the mental side," said Fissette.
"You can work tactically and technically and physically as hard as you can, but you can't forget the mental part. We all know how important that is, especially in her situation, which is different to how it was before. From there, I feel as though it only went up. Her level went up. In Stuttgart last month, I saw the confident Vika again. She was entertaining the crowd, a little bit how we know her, and that means that she's feeling good."
There are still days, Azarenka has said, when she wants to "cry, hide and not see anybody".
"I've got to go to work, take pictures with people and smile. Some days I do that with a lot of struggle, but some days are better," she said in an interview with the BBC.
Azarenka, who cried when she found out she was pregnant as she thought her career was over, has now adjusted to juggling her tennis commitments with being a mother to her two-year-old son, Leo.
"Vika had to find the balance, which was difficult, but I think the past few months she has found a good balance," said Fissette.
"That makes it different to the Vika I worked with in 2015 and 2016 before she became a mother. Of course, her priorities are different now. She realised that tennis is more her job than her full life. Tennis is her job, and she wants to do her job as well as possible, but the most important thing in her life is, of course, her son."
On days when Azarenka isn't competing, days are divided neatly into two.
"We tried to divide the day. It's quite simple. The mornings are for practice and the afternoons are for family," said Fissette. "That feels good for her because she knows what is happening when, and it's also good for her son because he knows that mummy is working in the morning and then she will be there with him in the afternoons. That's good for everyone, that's very clear."
Azarenka, who has risen to World No.44 this week, doesn't love tennis as much as she once did.
"Before my son was born, tennis was my life. I said I was going to come back because it was still important to me to prove it to people," she told the BBC. "But I don't love it that much any more, but that's fine, because I want to be with my son every single minute of my life. Tennis is my job."
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