x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US Open final: no time for hiding now for Victoria Azarenka

With help from near and dear ones, the once shy and weak Azarenka is now opening up.

Victoria Azarenka is no more shy or weak from her formative years. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
Victoria Azarenka is no more shy or weak from her formative years. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Victoria Azarenka stands at a statuesque 6ft and has developed an impressively thick skin to big-match situations.

Ever since she left her Belarus home as a 16 year old to pursue her tennis dreams in the United States, Azarenka's career has witnessed some highs of being world No 1 and winning back-to-back Australian Open crowns as well as some lows.

Always a leading junior, Azarenka developed her talents in Arizona where she lived and turned professional in 2003. It took six years to capture her first singles title, at Brisbane in 2009.

A 17-title long roll of honour now includes triumphs in Melbourne in 2012 and 2013 and a mixed doubles gold with Max Mirnyi at the London Olympics.

At 24, her game is now based on formidable power off the ground and deceptively comfortable hands at the net, but before she made her breakthrough at a major she had considered walking away from the sport.

A heart-to-heart conversation with her beloved grandmother back home in Minsk revived her spirit for the game and she has hardly looked back.

Her 2012 Australian Open title was part of a 26-match winning streak while today will see her playing in a second successive US Open final.

Her career has also brought her more than US$20 million (Dh73.46m) in prize money, a luxury home in Monte Carlo and a romance with pop singer Redfoo.

"He has helped me so much. It's a learning experience to learn how to interact with people, to see their perspective," she said. "He helped me tremendously with that, and just to open up and be who I am."

Her habit of making her entrance on court hidden in a hoodie and with headphones plugged into rhythm and blues, hip-hop or Motown music may work to soothe pre-match tensions, but there have been times Azarenka wishes she could stay hidden.

Blasted as too emotionally unstable and physically weak to break into the big-hitting league of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in her early years, Azarenka has also been ridiculed for her infamous on-court grunting.

Crowds have often mimicked her banshee wailing, and spectators were on her back again at the Australian Open this year, when she took a 10-minute injury timeout against America's Sloane Stephens after wasting five match points.

Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, described it as "cheating within the rules".

She has also endured a tense relationship with Sharapova, getting involved in a shoulder bumping clash with the Russian star at the Italian Open last year.

Azarenka has also fallen foul of one the more bizarre sports pullouts in recent years - walkover due to unhygienic pedicure suffered in Thailand and was forced to concede a semi-final in Brisbane to Williams.

It will be Williams figuring large again today and it remains to be seen which side of Azarenka turns up on court today.

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