Speaking after securing her first appearance in the Australian Open semi-finals in a decade, Victoria Azarenka has revealed her recent resurgence has been inspired, at least in part, by her ability to accept and overcome her own anxiety.
Winding back the clock, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka defeated higher-ranked Jessica Pegula on Tuesday evening 6-4, 6-1 to storm into her first semi-final at Melbourne Park since her victorious campaign as defending champion in 2013.
Having hit a low point following a first-round exit in Ostrava in October, Azarenka revealed she felt “lost” and “was at the point where [she] couldn't find anything” positive about herself.
In the months since Azarenka has undertaken a process-driven transformation guided by a newfound understanding of acceptance and compassion to overcome an admitted “fear of failure”.
“I broke a few racquets after my match in Ostrava (smiling). That was kind of a very tough moment for me,” Azarenka said post-match.
“From then, I kind of tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative. Accepting the anxiety that I have. Accepting the fear that I have. Kind of working through it. That was step by step.
“I kept trying to go a little step forward, another challenge, another step forward. I learned how to kind of start to build a process that is step by step instead of kind of jumping to a conclusion in the situation, jumping to a result, or to the goal, and really focused on step by step, which is pretty hard to do. I think it requires a lot of work, daily work, that I'm doing.
“I'm pretty happy that the process that I'm going through makes me feel confident about myself, happy about myself, and helps me to be more open, be more accepting, be compassionate. 'Compassionate' was a very hard word for me to understand.”
It was a dominant performance from start to finish for Azarenka who broke the Pegula serve early and consolidated for a 3-0 lead.
Pegula then clicked into gear and threw the kitchen sink at Azarenka. But Azarenka had had answers; and lots of them.
Utilising her forehand and backhand slice with aplomb, Azarenka was able to withstand some strong tennis from Pegula who hit more winners and had stronger serving numbers than the Belarusian in the 64-minute first set.
Azarenka would relinquish her break of service when trying to close the first set at 5-3 but the former champion quickly overcame that hiccup to break Pegula immediately; likely utilising her “step by step” approach.
After a tight first stanza littered with long rallies and baseline blows from both, highlighted by 23 nine-or-more shot rallies, Azarenka then released the kraken.
The Belarusian upped her level further and dominated all parts of the court including winning 15 of 19 rallies of less than five shots and converting all three break points to run away with the set and the match.
Awaiting Azarenka, who has won the title on both occasions when making a semi-final, is reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.
Rybakina will likely enter the match as favourite given her clinical wins over Jelena Ostapenko and world number 1 Iga Switaek in the last two rounds.
Azarenka, however, is “looking forward to the challenge”.
“She's an incredible player. She won Wimbledon last year. I think maybe she had a little bit of up and downs, but she's a very good, solid player. Her ranking obviously doesn't tell the full story.
“Yeah, she's very powerful. Big serve. She's in the semi-final, so she's obviously playing amazing.”
Post-match Azarenka further revealed that allegations of gamesmanship in her 2013 semi-final win over Sloane Stephens following an unfortunately timed medical timeout while leading 5-4 in the second set had sat uncomfortably with her for 10 years.
“It was one of the worst things that I've ever gone through in my professional career, the way I was treated after that moment, the way I had to explain myself until 10:30 p.m. at night because people didn't want to believe me. I actually can resonate what Novak said the other day.
“There is sometimes, like, I don't know, incredible desire for a villain and a hero story that has to be written. But we're not villains, we're not heroes, we are regular human beings that go through so many, many things.
“Assumptions and judgments, all those comments, are just shit because nobody's there to see the full story. It didn't matter how many times I said my story, it did not cut through.”
Irrespective of whether Azarenka can progress to her third final at Melbourne Park, she has demonstrated enormous self-growth which includes an ability to ignore any external noise regarding her performance as an athlete which once bothered the 33-year-old.
“Now I just don't care. Like, I am more and more confident in what I know about myself, and I'm at peace with that. Those comments, judgments, they're there. I notice them. But I don't care.”
When questioned as to whether she would let herself dream of a third grand slam victory, Azarenka wouldn’t let herself deviate from her process.
“Too far [ahead] to think about that,” she said.
“ I think that my answer to earlier questions kind of gives you a little bit of a glimpse of how mentally I am, trying to work through the process. So thinking about winning, I mean, it's there obviously, kind of flying around, the thoughts.
“I don't really want to take my mind there. I just really want to focus on something that works for me, that keeps me focused, that keeps me I want to say calm, just keeps me at peace. I think that is a very important part for me, to be at peace.