A rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka says she is going to keep pushing for Grand Slam titles after finishing runner-up at the US Open, fueled by a more relaxed outlook on life.
The two-time Slam winner lost to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in three sets at Flushing Meadows on Saturday in her first appearance in the final of a tennis major in seven years.
Many commentators thought the former world number, now 31, was done at Grand Slams after her career was first disrupted by injury and then by a custody battle of her son, who was born in December 2016.
But the unseeded Belarusian enjoyed a fairytale run to the final at the US National Tennis Center, which included a three sets defeat of former foe Serena Williams in the semi-finals.
“I had a great two weeks. I enjoyed myself. I did everything I could today,” said Azarenka, winner of the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013.
“I’m not necessarily disappointed. It’s just painful to lose. That is what it is. I was close. But it didn’t go my way,” she added.
Azarenka raced to 1-0 lead after thumping Osaka 6-1 in just 26 minutes.
A combination of impressive serving and formidable returns was reminiscent of the form that delivered two Grand Slam titles at her peak.
It was Azarenka’s first appearance in a Grand Slam championship match since she lost to Serena Williams in the 2013 US Open final.
She also suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Williams in 2012 at Flushing Meadows, when she served for the match at 5-3 in the third set only to lose 7-5.
Azarenka says she is benefitting from a new outlook on life, in contrast to her younger years when winning tennis matches was all that mattered.
“I feel that I enjoyed more the way I am on the court,” said Azarenka, comparing Saturday’s match with her previous Slam final appearances.
“Not necessarily focused on the result, but focusing on your progress, being in the moment, embracing the tough moments, tough challenges,” she said.
Here’s a transcript of her post-match interview (courtesy: US Open):
Q. After what has been an extraordinary two weeks for you, three weeks for you, can you tell us how close you were to quitting the game and what kept you in it?
Azarenka: How close? I will say that I was ready to stop definitely. I said that before. I hadn’t touched my racquet for five months. I was really not planning on coming to play until I had my personal issues resolved. So I never really made the final decision because I was going to do that after.
So it was pretty close. But what kept me in the game is my desire to go after what I want. That’s pretty much it.
Q. What did you sense shifted in this match? You got off to such a tremendous start. Where do you think the momentum changed?
Azarenka: I think the break, maybe in the beginning of the second set, she started to play better. Caught a few lines, had some really good shots. She was being really aggressive.
I don’t know if there was just one momentum shift. I felt there were a few moments that were shifting, even in the second set was it game 4-3, I think. It was a really long game or something. Maybe it was 5-3. I don’t remember exactly the score now. I didn’t kind of convert my chances, but I felt like I was kind of changing the momentum but I didn’t really finish it.
I don’t think there was only one. I think in the third set also I started to come back and stuff. It was a lot of tight moments where, you know, didn’t work out for me today.
Q. This has been quite a back-to-back, quite a turnaround. What is your feeling on your accomplishments?
Azarenka: Well, I think it’s definitely been a great three weeks of tennis. I haven’t had such results in quite a long time, so I’m very excited for it. Today, it’s a loss. As I said, it doesn’t change for me much. Of course, I would have loved to win today. It is what it is.
I gave everything that I could today on the court. It didn’t come my way. But I’m very proud of the last three weeks that I’ve been here. I felt that I progressed a lot. I’ve played a lot of great matches. I felt that I’ve tested myself physically, mentally on very difficult stages.
It’s been great. I’m very proud of myself. I want to continue to keep going the same way, enjoy myself. As I said, it was a lot of fun for me to play, to be in the final of the US Open. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.
Q. Do you think you sent some kind of message to the rest of the players on the tour? If so, what would that message be?
Azarenka: If I’m sending any message to the players?
Q. Just playing as well as you have, sort of announcing it by coming back this way after not being a factor for a while.
Azarenka: I don’t really look at it that way. I don’t necessarily pay attention to that. I’m more focused on what I have to do.
What kind of message it sends? I think everybody can take it a certain way. I wouldn’t really worry myself of other people’s opinions.
Q. Does the disappointment sit for a while? You’ve achieved a hell of a lot with this comeback that you’ve made. This is just one match. I mean, in one sense is it a positive because of the steps that you’ve made?
Azarenka: Sorry, the question is if the disappointment will sit a lot with me?
Q. Yes. Will it sit for quite a while or is it a fact that you’ve made these incredible strides and that’s what you really go with?
Azarenka: I’m not disappointed. I’m not necessarily disappointed. It’s just painful. It’s painful to lose. That is what it is. It was close. I was close. But it didn’t go my way.
Am I going to think about it too long? Not at all. I said it. I win or I lose, I’m not going to change. I’m not going to sit here and be miserable. This was an experience that was just an experience that didn’t go my way.
I had a great two weeks. I enjoyed myself. I did everything I could today. Could I have played better? I think I could. But I left everything I could on the court today. She won the match. All the credit to Naomi. She’s a champion.
As I said, I thought third time is a charm, but I got to try again. That’s what I’m going to do (smiling).
Q. You’re not the type of person that needs validations from results. Now that you’ve gotten this big result, does it inspire you to push yourself even further, maybe believe more in what’s possible with your tennis nowadays?
Azarenka: I wouldn’t look at it as a validation. It’s more, like, confirmation that the work you’re putting in is bringing the positive result. I think it’s an important way to kind of build on that. Things that maybe don’t work, like some things today didn’t work out, it’s an opportunity for me to learn and move forward.
Validation? Thankfully I stopped looking for any kind of validation from anybody. That’s a huge success. Yeah, I think it’s just a matter of really – I would say it’s a confirmation. You do want to have a feedback, right? The result is kind of your feedback that you acquire with that. That’s a great feedback.
Then the loss also is a great feedback for something else, so...
Q. What did you enjoy about your tennis during this Grand Slam event that was different from other years?
Azarenka: I feel that I enjoyed more the way I am on the court. Not necessarily focused on the result, but focusing on your progress, being in the moment, embracing the tough moments, tough challenges.
When the things don’t go your way, it’s more fun to kind of figure it out rather than being in, like, Oh, shit, I’m in trouble, what am I going to do?
That for me is more fun because I’m looking for, you know, more solutions-oriented rather than what am I doing wrong?
My mentality has been something a lot more fun for me to be around. I felt that I’ve enjoyed myself throughout the tournament way more. When you’re young, you got some not great people around you, they just put in, like, this tunnel vision. Don’t look right, don’t look left.
You’re kind of missing the point of living. You’re becoming this focused machine as a tennis player. So I’m able to be more, like, fulfilled, I will say, outside of the tennis court, on the tennis court. I think that’s a real success. I will take that any day over just the tennis results. I think that’s much bigger achievement for me on a personal level.
Q. You’ve been a champion, you’ve been No. 1. You’ve played many women who have been there, too. What would you say are Naomi’s best traits and what do you think she can accomplish in this sport?
Azarenka: What I think she can accomplish? I not necessarily think about it. I think she has proven that she’s able to maintain the level of Grand Slam success for three times now. So that proves a lot.
Her game is very powerful. Today we played a little bit of a different surface. I don’t necessarily remember that much the match that we played before, so I think I might need to look at it to kind of compare the matches.
But she’s a great player. She has a lot of weapons where you have to be, like, on top of her and execute really well. But, yeah, she’s pretty impressive player. I mean, she’s a US Open champion. What else can you say?
Q. Strangely enough you lost with the same score you won yesterday versus Serena Williams. Life goes back and forth, no? I’d like to know what were you thinking when you were up 6-1, 2-Love, and you had a game point to go 3-Love in the second set?
Azarenka: I don’t remember. I just don’t remember (laughter). If I could keep track of all my thoughts, it would be amazing. But I don’t remember. It’s as simple as that.
I hope you have another question because this one kind of blows.
Q. You just talked earlier about having tunnel vision when you were younger. Maybe people around you not helping with that. Do you think that players should be taught to have more perspective from a young age, or is that something they need to find out as they grow up, as you have?
Azarenka: I think it would be helpful obviously. It all comes out obviously from your education. Then I feel like a lot of young players, especially girls, are very vulnerable to be manipulated, to be shifted in certain directions. It’s really unfortunate to see this happen.
So I hope that that type of things kind of minimize a little bit. It’s not easy when you’re young and you have to figure out under a lot of pressure how to navigate in a different world, especially when you have a lot of success.
I hope there will be a little bit more attention paid to, I wouldn’t necessarily talk about mental health, it’s just general happiness of players. We see sometimes players only have identification of themselves as a tennis player, then they’re kind of lost in life, what to do after their careers. I’m not talking just in tennis. I think in sport in general.
Hopefully there will be maybe a little bit of a better mechanism, a little bit more of a conversation about talking how to be able to navigate through life, responsibility, through making decisions that are not easy at the young age, and we won’t see some of the unfortunate cases that we do see.
Q. Before today it was seven years since your last Grand Slam final. Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn’t reach another final? Has your US Open run given you determination to reach even more finals?
Azarenka: Was there ever a time you thought...
Well, I mean, if I wasn’t going to play. That kind of comes with it, right, that I wasn’t going to reach another final (laughter).
But if I put my mind into doing my job, and I decide that I’m going to go for it, I don’t necessarily think that I’m not going to be able to reach something. Do I have doubts? I’m a human being that has doubts, that has fears, that has different kinds of emotion which are so normal. It’s just the difference that those emotions are not going to stop me from doing what I’m going to do. I think that sometimes separates people who are going after their dreams and able to succeed rather than being inactive.
In that way, my belief comes a little bit before the results. I’ve said it many times, and I’m going to continue to say that, because it’s very, very true. That’s what it is.
Q. Knowing how much focus it takes to win in this sport on a regular basis, are you surprised to see all that Naomi has taken on with the activism and so forth, in addition to chasing titles?
Azarenka: I can’t really speak for that because I don’t necessarily know what she’s doing, how much time it takes her to be involved or not be involved. I don’t necessarily like to speak about other people because I could maybe give you my opinion, but that would be just guessing or assuming. I’m not the type of player or person who likes to assume or just give opinions without knowing facts.
Q. We have the unique situation this season of the French Open being only two weeks away. What are your thoughts on making that quick transition? How difficult is it going to be?
Azarenka: I mean, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m kind of excited for that, to play on clay. I haven’t had the best relationship with clay seasons for years. Last year I kind of had a lot of fun. So I’m looking forward to just slide a little more.
It will be very interesting for me to see how French Open is going to handle the situation with the bubble life, with the COVID now. I hope they will do a good job of protecting the players first rather than making money. So we’ll see.
Q. When you talk now about feeling the gratitude, did you feel the same way when you lost in 2013? When you were No. 1 did it feel differently than now?
Azarenka: I don’t feel the same way, for sure. For sure not. That’s not even comparable. 2012, 2013... I’m very happy I’ve used my seven years or eight years wisely to mature and have a different reaction than before (laughter).
Q. If you think back at the rollercoaster you had to go through, if you think about the choices that make you sit where you are sitting right now, how would you explain those choices to Leo if one day he was to ask them to you?
Azarenka: You know, that’s a really good question. I haven’t really thought about it. I feel like at some point we will have quite a few conversations about how things happened, the journey that we both been through. I don’t know. I’m not ready for that conversation yet.
I hope there will be some more chapters to write that it will be easier to kind of talk about more. Right now, I don’t think I’m ready for that conversation. Thankfully he’s not old enough to have those kind of conversations so I have time to prepare myself.
Q. Given the results of the last three weeks how, if at all, have your expectations shifted?
Azarenka: They have not shifted. Obviously I haven’t thought – not to say I haven’t thought about upcoming weeks. Just didn’t really get into the feeling of how I’m going to feel about next tournament or other tournaments.
I think expectations is just obviously a lot more coming on the outside where you kind of feel like you have to put a certain pressure on yourself to be able to deliver something. But I’ve been down this road now a few times. I hopefully learned my lesson how to navigate the situation.
So my expectation is always very high on terms of what I do, the effort that I put in. I don’t think that will change at all. But in terms of results, if I’m going to start focusing on that, I think it will be counterproductive for my progress. So I would just want to continue to, you know, learn.
I don’t want to ever be satisfied that I know how to do things or I know how to behave or tactical-wise, any of that. I want to continue to be a student. I’m going to strive for that.
Q. It seemed like you had energy throughout the match. Possibly the first set was your better set. What did you find the most challenging, if anything, in the second and third sets?
Azarenka: I felt I had a little bit of a energy dip that I could maybe do a little better. I think it’s something for me to learn, is how to maybe manage my energy a little bit more.
It’s been a long three weeks. Kind of taking that experience and also looking back at it of how I can manage myself to be able maybe to feel a little bit better physically and stuff. It’s all going to be really about looking back into these three weeks and see what I can improve, and move forward.
I’m not going to think about it too much, that this was just a loss. It’s really an experience of what I can learn from. That’s going to be exciting. I’m actually excited finding out what I can do better. I think that’s the part where I feel like it’s going to push me to be better.
I think as long as I have that, I’m good.
Q. Down to play Venus Williams in the first round of the Italian Open in Rome.
Azarenka: What did you say? I play Venus? What did you say?
Q. You’re down to play Venus Williams in Rome.
Azarenka: And? What was the question?
Q. Are you intending to play? It’s started already.
Azarenka: Am I intending to play? Yeah, I’m going on a flight tomorrow. It’s going to be fun. I’m very grateful. Actually, I have an opportunity to thank the Rome tournament for giving me a wild card. I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
I’m looking forward to play on clay. It’s going to be a quick turnaround, but it’s going to be fun.
Transcript courtesy US Open / ASAP Sports
With AFP inputs