Never write off Victoria Azarenka. The two-time major champion and former No.1 ended her year-long winless drought in style by capturing her first title in four years at the Western & Southern Open. En route to her 21st title and first as a mother, Azarenka lost just one set all week before securing the title with a walkover from Naomi Osaka, who was forced out with a hamstring injury.
Azarenka joined the WTA Insider Podcast after her big win to discuss the key to her title run, the doubts that nearly led to her retirement earlier this year, and why no matter if she's winning or losing, we're always talking about Vika.
Champions Corner: Victoria Azarenka returns to the Winner's Circle in Cincy https://t.co/TXOgYipNf5— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) August 29, 2020
WTA Insider: How does it feel to win the title and what was the key to your week?
Azarenka: I played opponents who have beat me before, so I had to really step up from an uncomfortable zone of losing to the opponents and adjust and find a way to beat them again. So I'm very happy that I've been able to do those adjustments.
And throughout the week I've been progressing with my tennis and also adjusting to different types of players. Like the quarterfinals versus Ons, it was a tough match. Never played against her. She surprised me in a really good way with how she plays. That first set was a roller coaster, so I'm happy with the way I've been able to handle that and go through that. It's such a valuable experience for me moving forward that I'm very grateful for.
WTA Insider: You only lost one set throughout the tournament but you came through two extended tiebreakers during the week against Jabeur and Garcia and faced quite adversity in those matches. You must be incredibly pleased to you came through after having to dig deep.
Azarenka: Definitely. Especially the match against Garcia was such a great experience for me in the way that I was playing super well. I was up 6-2, 5-2. Everything was going my way. I was feeling great. And then she really fought her way back and I wasn't able to close out. So for me to kind of stay strong there and find my way to be in that match and finish strong in that set was a really, really important opportunity to learn from that.
So I was happy. I enjoyed that a lot. I remember I went off the court and I was talking to my team. And I was like, I'm very grateful that I went through that because it was good for me to kind of learn and feel that back and forth a little bit because it happens a lot. So I was very grateful for that.
WTA Insider: You seemed like you were having fun out there in these matches and you've said all week that a big difference for you is how much you're enjoying being on the court. For those of us mere mortals who don't play professional tennis, what does it mean for you to enjoy being on the court?
Azarenka: Well, I don't want to put myself on a different pedestal than other people because we all experience the same emotions. It's just maybe a different caliber or in different circumstances.
But the idea of enjoying it, like you can go to work and be miserable and don't enjoy it at all, any kind of work. And then you see, like that actor from Glee hyping everybody up. He's super happy all the time so you see him enjoying and having a different experience.
I wanted to have my experience of my matches to enjoy them and have fun. It's tough out there. It's uncomfortable. It's whatever. But I want to enjoy that. That's what I work for. I work and train for hours to go out there and be what? Miserable? Why am I doing that? And I think it takes a long time to understand that, to feel that.
Obviously I'm sitting here looking from a different perspective, which I didn't have before. So I think that's what it is. But I do enjoy. It's not only on the court. It's off the court. How I am is on the practice court, nobody probably sees it, especially now when we're in the bubble. But it's just a daily experience of how you want to look at things.
WTA Insider: Does this feel normal to you? Given everything you've gone through, now winning your title, a Premier 5 title, since 2016, does this feel different or does this feel like something you're used to?
Azarenka: I think that's really not a humble thing to say: Oh, I'm used to it. I'm not (laughs). You don't get used to it, especially without winning a match in a year. Oh yeah, I know what it feels like. No. It's a different experience.
But I think obviously people look at the results and they assume or expect that because of that result, that's what's going to make you happy. That's why you're so excited or you're confident. But to me, that's not what makes me happy. What makes me happy is really the process that I go through every day. The winning or losing is not going to make me better or worse.
So I look at it that way. How am I going to live with my experience every day? If I didn't win today, if I didn't win yesterday, I wouldn't change. And I think that's where I'm most happy about with my experience.
WTA Insider: You came into Cincinnati looking for your first main draw win in 12 months. Through your struggles and ups and downs, the media and fans never forgot about you. Let's be frank, there are major champions and former No.1s who struggle and stop getting headlines. For better or worse, you weren't one of them, and I think that's a credit to your talent and what we know you can do on the court. That must have hard for you to manage.
Azarenka: Oh, definitely. I think it's very, very difficult when you go up and then you go down, but your ego is still as big as when you were up. People expect you to do things the way they were. But not a lot of people know what you're going through. And you expect it of yourself. I was there, I should be doing this or I should be doing that. A lot of times it was, oh, what do you expect this week or what do you expect of that? And when you put those certain expectations and you don't get them, that's where you crash.
I think I've done that mistake many, many times for myself. In terms of not maybe media forgetting me, because with me it's one thing: you can like me or you can don't like me, but you get what you see. I don't shy away from what I say. I don't always say what I want to say in the moment, but I always say what I want to say. Whatever it is, you're going to hear it from me.
And I think people understand that, in the same way you see it on the court. I'm going to bring whatever it is. You know when I'm pissed. You know when I'm happy. You know when I'm frustrated. You know when I don't like something. That's never been an issue.
I think authenticity and realness is what maybe keeps that interest in people because I'm not scripted. I'm not going to sit here and read what my publicist tells me or whatever. If I don't believe it, I'm going to do that. So I think that sort of mutual respect from people, from athletes, from journalists has been established.
I'm honestly grateful for that because that hopefully shows that people maybe are interested in what I have to say, and that's why I'm always very careful with what I've put out there, because I want it to be not just words. I want to see action. I want to see change. I don't believe always in just saying it and then not backing it up. I think when I say something, I do that and that's what I'm proud of myself for.
So going through those moments, learning moments, it's an experience and it got me to a place where I can look from different perspectives. I always love to understand people in their shoes and see their point of view before I can make up my mind and my opinion. That's where we are now.
I understand and I appreciate people who want to make a difference, who are doing their job, doing their best. You don't have to agree with me. But when you have good intention, you have a good heart, I respect that with everything in me. I think that's what people relate with me, that whatever I do I give 100 percent or I don't do that at all.
WTA Insider: You were asked this week if the thought of retirement had crossed your mind the last few years and you said yes, as recently as January. What made you decide to keep going?
Azarenka: Well, my whole thing was like, do I want to go out there and give everything I can. Am I mentally ready to give everything I can? Because I said that many times, tennis will never be my number one priority. My number one priority is my family. So I wanted to know if I can do that, if I can put a little bit more time aside for myself and try to give the best I can.
I was ready to do different things. I had projects to do different things, but I still wanted to give that one chance because something in me was saying you haven't tried. You haven't tried and if you want to finish, you have to finish it on your terms, knowing that I gave everything I could. I would have been happy if I was stopped in January. I wouldn't be an unhappy person. But I wanted to give myself the opportunity to see.
But going into it, I knew I had to change things because old ways don't work. I'm not the same person. I'm not the same player. I needed to find new ways. I was a little bit scared. Am I strong enough to find new ways? Am I patient enough to go and grind? And I was like, I don't know. Do I want to do this in my career at this point? Go out and play?
So the ego is like big, big big. OK, how about we try. It wasn't overnight. It was days that were ugly and people who live with me in the house know that. It's not pretty. I wrote that as one my quotes, if you give 100 percent to what you do, things find the way to work out.