About a decade ago, Victoria Azarenka was taking the tennis world by storm with her fearless ball-striking and her fearsome intensity. Azarenka's demolition of Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Australian Open final had marked her out as the most special youngster on the WTA tour; it seemed like the sky was the limit for her.
In the nine years since, the Belarusian has actually been to the sky - and also come crashing back down to earth. She has ascended to the No. 1 ranking, plummeted outside the top 200, given birth to an adorable little boy, been forced into a bitter custody battle, suffered career-threatening injuries, made stirring comebacks, and earned the love and wrath of fans in equal measure.
Amid all of this though, Azarenka is still reaching Slam finals. In 2012 it was the Australian Open and US Open, in 2020 it was the US Open again, and now ahead of the 2021 Australian Open she is widely considered one of the title favorites. Clearly, the Belarusian has been doing something right through all of the ups and downs.
Victoria Azarenka's journey from super-talented angry youngster to super-calm veteran stateswoman has been the bumpy ride to beat all bumpy rides. And that is what has given her a truly unique perspective on tennis, life and everything in between.
So when Azarenka announced a six-episode podcast series (in partnership with WTA and Tennis Channel) on mental health and quality of life, you knew there would be some seriously fascinating insights on show. Titled 'Think About It', the series is launching on 27 January and will feature conversations with the likes of sports psychologist Trevor Moawad, Peloton instructor Robin Arzon and professional rock climber Sasha Digualian.
Ahead of the launch of the podcast, Sportskeeda caught up with Victoria Azarenka for an exclusive chat about her new project as well as her take on mental health in general. Below are the excerpts:
Q: Vika, you’re coming towards the end of your 14-day quarantine. How would you say you’re doing right now in terms of your mental and physical health?
Azarenka: I’m good, I’m doing fine. (laughs) Absolutely fine.
Q: Your new podcast series ‘Think About It’ releases on 27 January, and in your post where you announced the project you said you were ‘nervous’ as well as ‘excited’ about it. What makes you nervous?
Azarenka: What makes me nervous is that it’s a new thing for me to do. It’s something that I haven’t really done before. I would probably say that’s it (laughs).
It’s a project that I’ve kind of built from scratch and put a lot of work into. Sometimes these things are subjective. When you play tennis, it’s win or lose. But when you release something like this it’s subjective in terms of how it goes. Did people like it or not? So it’s a bit of an unusual feeling for me. But I’m very excited for people to see it because I really put my heart and soul into it.
I’m not necessarily nervous about how it’s going to be received. I am nervous because I have opened up myself and my guests to a point where nobody has really seen me. And the conversation that I’ve started, I’ve never been really talked about (before).
I feel that that is sometimes missing in sport - this authenticity and realness. A lot of athletes a lot of times are very protective about themselves, and for good reasons. But I feel there’s a certain strength in showing your vulnerability and sharing those experiences for people to see. So yeah, I think that’s where a bit of my nervousness is coming from. And I really don’t take it in a bad way. It’s just really how I feel and I think that’s pretty normal.
Q: We’ve heard some snippets of the series already, through the promos that have been put out over the last week. And I have to say there seem to be some really interesting insights into the competitive mind of an athlete on the field. It’s funny in a way that the work of an athlete is seen by the entire world through TV and the internet, and yet the inner turmoil that you go through during a match is totally invisible and almost never spoken about. In that sense athletes have to do a lot of problem-solving internally, while at the same time they also have to put up a brave face for the world. So do you think athletes as a group have a better understanding of how to handle the ups and downs that go through a person’s mind than, say, someone who is not in a public field?
Azarenka: I think that the difference is that we are trained to handle pressure moments in our job. And that is an exercise that you do regardless of your upbringing or your personal struggles.
The kind of thing we learn is that when you go on the court you just block everything else out. If you are getting nervous during the play maybe you need to be more brave and you need to go for more. There are certain tools that I think help people how to navigate and how to apply (in match situations).
But I think life tools are overlooked sometimes. I started this conversation last year about how, if you do some mental work, you should do the full range of it. I think it’s important to touch base on all of the aspects because they are all interconnected. You can’t just work on one and forget the others. Maybe the timing is such that you work on one and then on another, but the cycle should never be stopped.
I think there’s a certain danger with trends that are happening in sports and in life, where people hear about something - ‘Oh this worked for somebody so I’m going to try it’ - (but) without having full awareness or understanding of what it is exactly.
I heard a lot last year about people starting to talk of how I work with psychologists. But sometimes it’s just based on performance, and not on your well-being.
I think this is a very important message - that when you do that kind of work you really need to touch base on everything. It’s dangerous to just touch some parts and not touch the others, especially for young players. I really believe this is something that should continue to be a part of conversation.
Q: You mentioned that different tools apply to different fields. Now last year during your semifinal against Serena Williams at the US Open, you were seen sitting at your chair during one of the breaks in the third set, seemingly in a trance. There was even a fly that settled on your nose for a few seconds but you didn’t move an inch. Is meditation something new you’ve adopted to deal with the pressures of a match? Do you think meditation is specific to you and to sport, or would you say it should work in other fields too?
Azarenka: I don’t think meditation is specific to me for sure, because I’m not the one who discovered it (laughs). Like what I said before, there are so many (new) trends of meditation, so many trends of yoga that the essential practices that were founded initially have been lost in the transmission. I think it’s very important to not be confused.
I think it also has to come with a certain awareness. Why are you doing this? Everybody can just sit still and try to do that (meditation), but on which level of awareness are you doing that? And I think (knowing) that is harder.
I also think that when you do get to this point it’s not necessarily - ‘Okay I meditate and then I do whatever else I want’. Like for example, people who go to church...when they are out of church they do bad things, but then they go on Sunday they ask for forgiveness.
My understanding - the perspective that brought me to the way I feel - is to have that awareness and that pathway throughout, and not just when I meditate or when I perform (on-court). It’s really more of a lifestyle.
Q: You have been working on your podcast series during the COVID year - amid lockdowns, quarantines and generally depressing circumstances for everyone. And we all know that creating even one podcast is a serious task, let alone six of them. How difficult was it for you - as a professional athlete and full-time mom - to work on something like this? How have you been able to balance everything out?
Azarenka: It’s been challenging but I think COVID has also given me a bit more time to pause and compartmentalize some of my ideas. When I do have a bit of a break from playing and competing, I can be very creative. So in a way this quarantine has also been very helpful for me.
Balancing all this used to be a big struggle for me earlier - you know, being a mom and playing and everything. And when I talk about it being a struggle, it’s not necessarily in terms of logistics, because I’m very fortunate to have the help of my nanny and my mom. But (it’s a struggle) in a mental way, to deal with the guilt that I have to leave and do my job. That has been a very difficult balance for me to manage.
But I think it (the COVID year) has also helped me understand how I can prioritize. I do my job for a certain period of time, and then the rest of the time I spend on what my priorities are. So that kind of taught me a bit about balancing everything and having a better quality of life.
Q: Your son Leo hasn’t traveled with you to Melbourne, which is perfectly understandable given the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in. But is it particularly difficult to stay away from him at this time, when you’re in such tough quarantine conditions?
Azarenka: Yes it’s very difficult. It is something that I have thought about for a bit. But no matter how selfishly I want him to be here for myself, it would not have been the best for him.
I think that’s my responsibility as a parent. I have to put his needs and wants (laughs) - I don’t know if that’s developed yet - but I have to put his needs and his well-being first. He’s going to travel with me later on, obviously, but this is the kind of decision that you have to make for your kid and not for yourself. I think that’s the biggest change that has come in me since I became a parent - putting myself second.
Q: As for the Australian Open, many think you are one of the favorites given your recent form and past history in Melbourne. But given that you are going through such a tough quarantine, do you think you’ll be in the right headspace and physical shape to have a shot at the title this year?
Azarenka: Well two weeks of quarantine is not ideal preparation, that’s for sure. But that’s not going to stop me from having the mentality of doing my best job. I will take it day by day as I always do, and who knows, maybe it’ll be beneficial in a way (laughs).
I don’t know the future. I’m never going to try to predict the future. All I can do is give my best in every moment and see what happens. That for sure is my goal, my priority. And as for the expectations - as I have always said, that is more of an outside influence. It’s not going to influence me or what I’m going to do.
Q: The Australian Open is likely to be tough for everyone. And the year as a whole is likely to be mentally draining for all the players too. As someone who has explored the mental side of sport, what advice would you like to give to the rest of the field, both in terms of the Australian Open and their approach to a potentially exhausting year up ahead?
Azarenka: Well I think if you start by thinking that it’s going to be exhausting, you’re already running behind. My advice is, as I already said, to take it day by day. That’s probably the easiest way to manage your expectations and your ability to make the right decisions.