By Stefan Wagner
Photographs by Greg Funnell
Reprinted with permission from The Red Bulletin.
The moment that reveals the most about Victoria Azarenka—over $20 million in prize money, the loudest scream in professional sports, girlfriend to the bizarre entertainer Redfoo—is this: Late Sunday morning, two bumpy hours by car outside the capital Minsk, in a holiday home that looks like a UFO damaged on crash-landing in the Belarusian forest, Victoria Azarenka is shuffling across the lobby, leading an older lady by the hand. This is her grandmother. For more than 50 years she worked as a kindergarten teacher, starting work at 5 o’clock in the morning. These days she comes here twice a year for three weeks’ rest.
She only found out yesterday that her granddaughter was coming to visit, and she hurried to get some grapes and white chocolate. The old lady walks with a stoop. “Slowly, Babushka, slowly,” her granddaughter is saying. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
Victoria Azarenka’s racket is indistinguishable from those used on the men’s circuit: Grip size four, wrapped in a sweat-absorbing band, it handles like a birch sapling. Wilson delivers her rackets with a cup per Grand Slam title engraved on the inner rim. Her racket has been adorned with two cups since January, when she defended her Australian Open title and reclaimed the top spot in women’s tennis, ahead of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
The roles in the three-way bout for No. 1 are evenly distributed.
There’s Williams, who has 16 Grand Slam titles to her name, and recently turned 31—she’s the grande dame of world tennis. Then there’s Sharapova, who transformed the women’s circuit into a catwalk and has been the best-paid female sports star in the world for the last eight years.
And Victoria Azarenka? Victoria Azarenka wins. Has won, in fact, 28 out of 31 matches since the beginning of the year; injury forced her to withdraw from Wimbledon in the second round.
Victoria Azarenka—Victoria as in “victory,” a name her parents consciously chose in 1989. Back then Belarus was still part of the Soviet Union. “There were six of us living in a small apartment, my brother and I, parents, grandparents. My father had two jobs, my grandmother would go to work at 5 o’clock in the morning, my mother worked until late at night—all so I could have the opportunity to play tennis.”
Azarenka was 9 when her first coach gave her children’s tennis group the challenge of hitting a ball 1,000 times perfectly against the wall. The number was utterly unrealistic; the trainer simply wanted to know how her junior charges handled impossible tasks. Azarenka hit the ball 1,460 times.
At 13 she won her first tournament in Uzbekistan, on the international under-18s’ circuit; there were no opponents left to conquer in Belarus. A year later, when she was already training in a camp in Marbella, Spain, she broke through to the women’s circuit. Kristin Haider-Maurer, an ex-pro who played against the 14-year-old at a minor tournament in Croatia, recalls a “complete beast who didn’t surrender a single ball, extremely ambitious, tenacious.” The more experienced Haider-Maurer was leading 3-0; Azarenka cried when they swapped sides. Then she emitted a scream of pure rage and ceded just one more game to her opponent, four years her senior: 6-4, 6-0.
Sam Sumyk, a Frenchman possessed of an imperturbable serenity, has been Azarenka’s trainer for the last three years. When asked what it is that makes Azarenka No. 1 in the world-—her backhand perhaps?—he shakes his head. “It’s her professionalism that makes the difference. It’s fascinating how determined she is to sacrifice everything to success.”
At the Australian Open they measured the volume of her screams whenever she hit the ball. It was just over 100 decibels. The threshold of pain for the human ear is 110 decibels.
Some journalists are calling for a change in the regulations to stop female tennis players from screaming; Azarenka and Sharapova come in for particularly harsh criticism.
“It’s unfair,” says one of Azarenka’s main rivals, Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska. “It ruins the game,” says tennis legend Martina Navratilova. But for Azarenka: “It’s part of my game.”
It’s early April and winter still has Minsk in its grip. Azarenka shouldn’t be here at all right now, but rather in Miami, where the world’s fifth-largest tennis tournament is taking place. Or in Arizona, where she moved at age 15 to live with the family of Russian NHL goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who financed her training in the U.S. Or at least in Monte Carlo, where she has an apartment. But after she sustained an ankle injury in Indian Wells in March, she decided she wanted to recuperate at home, “and home will always be Minsk.” Convalescence combined with a family visit and training camp: Even when you spare an ankle, there are plenty of body parts left to torture.
As Azarenka relaxes with some yoga in a gym in Belarus’s National Tennis Center, her coach Sumyk, agent Meilen Tu, physical therapist Per Bastholt, and fitness trainer Mike Guevara sip coffee outside the door. The top-flight entourage of a multimillion-dollar international star—two Americans, a Dane, and a Frenchman—presents a striking contrast to the surroundings: greenish neon light, worn floor, shabby ceiling panels, and faded black-and-white photos of Soviet tennis pioneers on the walls.
Some parts of the National Tennis Center have been refurbished in the last 15 years; the courts have been modernized and windows insulated so you no longer have to scratch frost off from the inside. But the changing rooms, the corridors, the gyms—they still look the same as they did when the 7-year-old Vika encountered them for the first time. Her mother, Alla, had just started a new job, sitting at a glass booth in the reception area from 8 o’clock in the morning to 10 at night.
On her first day at work Alla handed little Vika a racket. (Azarenka recalls an early Prince aluminum racket, a model that even some adults have difficulty handling. Does she still have it? “No. I was a crazy kid. I’m sure I smashed it up out of anger.”) Vika discovered a kind of gymnasium in the basement, with horizontal stripes on the walls and colorful lines on the floor. And for two years, day after day after day, she would hit tennis balls at that wall until her mother came to pick her up.
No sooner has the international star finished yoga than Guevara is expecting her for an endurance session on the ergometer. To ensure they remain undisturbed, Guevara has dragged the machine to a dingy room at the end of a dark corridor. Azarenka laughs as she enters the room. She points to the wall: “That was my net.” And indicating a few colored lines on the floor, she says, “That was my center court.”
The charms of Azarenka’s homeland are slow to reveal themselves. Belarus is located between Poland and Russia, between the Baltic states and Ukraine, and has just under 9.5 million inhabitants. The political power structures are just a little too entrenched to duck the description “dictatorial”: 2014 will mark President Lukashenko’s 20th year in power. The country’s favored foreign partners are Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.
The soldiers you see around Minsk all wear comically outsized caps, and you almost feel that it is the effort of keeping the enormous things on their heads that gives these officers their slightly swaying, officious gait. It’s a cheerful image that stands in contrast to the kind of relations between authority figures and average citizens that ordinarily prevail here, which are rarely distinguished by humor. You can recognize an experienced Belarusian driver, for instance, by the webcam positioned behind the windshield and pointed in the direction of travel; they’re designed to document excessively arbitrary exercises of power, if not prevent them altogether. At intersections, large-format billboards depict a man lying in bed smoking, the image struck through with a thick red line: Smoking and drunk in bed is a popular cause of death in Minsk. The billboard is rendered in the kind of rudimentary pictograms used to denote Olympic sports, as if drunkenly smoking in bed were a Belarusian Olympic discipline.
Belarusians generally avoid subjects like politics and social issues—call it post-Soviet fatalism. But they love talking about their land, the people, the traditions, the culture. Belarusian patriotism is proud, peppy, and omnipresent.
Azarenka, for example, loves talking about fellow Belarusian athletes. Natalia Zvereva, for instance, who represented the Soviet Union at the 1988 French Open and made it to the finals; Max Mirnyi, a world-class doubles player; and world champion biathlete Darya Domracheva (“she’s incredible.”)
Azarenka is also happy to discuss her role as a national heroine, a job she interprets in a very straightforward manner. When she drives through Minsk in her burgundy Porsche Cayenne, for instance, she isn’t saying: I’m better than you. Rather she’s saying: I am one of you, look at what I’ve achieved—and you can, too. “I would like to help raise the self-confidence of people here,” she says.
And she’s particularly eager to talk about Ulyana Grib, 13, and Ekaterina Grib, who’s 12. They train in the same tennis center in which Azarenka grew up. “They could be very, very good,” says Azarenka. How good is very, very good? “They have something that is extremely rare. When I asked them what their dream was, they were shy and hesitant at first. And then they said: ‘Please don’t get mad, but we want to be better than you.’ That’s when I knew: I want to help these girls.”
When she received a bonus for winning Olympic medals in London—bronze in singles, gold in the doubles along with Mirnyi—she sent the money to the young girls to help cover travel costs. She also trains with them, checks in on their progress by text, encourages them, cautions them, shares tips with them.
“In Belarusian culture there are three basic rules,” says Azarenka. “You can’t understand us until you understand our rules. Number 1: Your family is sacred. Number 2: Do everything for the children. And the most important rule: Respect your elders.”
In spring 2011, after Azarenka had already slugged her way to a spot on the fringes of the world elite, she lost her passion for tennis. “Training, torturing myself to fight for a tennis ball like I was fighting for my life: I didn’t want it anymore. I wanted to do something different. I asked my grandmother for advice. She listened to me, nodded, smiled, and said, ‘You have to find the thing which makes you happy. And then you have to keep doing that thing even when you’re just not in the mood.” That’s all she said. I went home, gave it some thought, and the next day I started training again.”
Nine months later, Azarenka won the Australian Open and reached No.1 in the world rankings.
Sunday afternoon back in the careworn UFO deep in the Belarusian forest. Inside the small holiday apartment, Azarenka sits next to her grandmother on the sofa; on the table in front of them are grapes, white chocolate, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace—grandmother’s holiday reading.
War and peace: Which one is the real Victoria Azarenka?
“There’s only one. She has two sides. If you want to win you have to fight. Don’t show weakness, don’t go soft, don’t be sensitive. Otherwise your opponent will use it to her advantage. During a match I’m a warrior.”
How does one switch between war and peace?
“It’s natural, like the lioness who goes out and fights. She will kill if she has to, but to her offspring she is the most loving mother imaginable. That’s life.”
It’s Sunday afternoon and Victoria Azarenka is eating grapes and stroking her grandmother’s hand. As soon as her ankle will support her, she’ll go back out, scream to the threshold of pain with every stroke, and run down the tennis ball as if it were a matter of life and death.