Top Seed Azarenka Struggles in Her Opener
PARIS — So Victoria, how is your French?
Rotten, Victoria Azarenka announced, sitting in the comfort of an armchair after an awkward match.
“But I understand a lot,” she said. “I am still really shy to speak. I’m picking it up, and I listen and I understand more. I can write better. It’s easier for me to think it through, but to speak is still difficult. But I’m young. I can catch up.”
Still, there were moments Monday, quite a few in fact, when it appeared that Azarenka would not have the chance to work on any more French or tennis at Roland Garros this spring.
Seeded No. 1 at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time at this French Open, the tall, Azarenka, a powerful Belarussian, came perilously close to becoming the first women’s top seed to lose in the opening round here since 1925. Though she took an early 2-0 lead in the late morning sunshine on Court Philippe Chatrier, she soon found herself out of sorts and down a set, 0-4 and break point to a flashy Italian journeywoman, Alberta Brianti.
“Honestly at that moment, I thought, ‘It’s done,’ ” said Amélie Mauresmo, a former top-ranked player who is Azarenka’s new adviser.
Falling behind, 0-5, in the second set might have made a major upset just about inevitable, even though the 32-year-old Brianti, ranked 105th, had shown no previous inclinations to create shock waves at major tournaments. But Azarenka, still tempestuous but no longer overwrought when confronted with her own tennis imperfections, proceeded to rear back and, suspect right shoulder and all, smack an ace on the line with her second serve.
If the ball had bounced another inch or so to the left, she might have been booking a flight to Minsk or Monte Carlo instead of her next practice court in Paris. But she held serve and proceeded to win six straight games to even the match at one set apiece and ultimately prevail, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2, despite making an unsightly 60 unforced errors and struggling to generate her customary speed and rhythm with her serve.
“Sometimes, I felt it was not my day,” said Azarenka, who said the shoulder problem, which caused her to retire from her last tournament in Rome, was much improved. “Sometimes I thought: ‘Yeah, maybe I still fight. I still have a chance.’ Sometimes it was like: ‘You know what? Forget it. I don’t want to do it.’ But the important thing in that really miserable, if you can say, moment, is I stay strong, and I just went for my shots. I just went for what I had to do, and I didn’t do before.
“That shows a little bit of not losing courage, I guess.”
The French Open has become a home tournament of sorts for Azarenka. She is based in French-speaking Monaco after leaving her former training base in Arizona. She began working with the French coach Sam Sumyk in 2010, and her physical therapist Jean-Pierre Bruyère, her sparring partner Julien Jeanpierre and her new star recruit, Mauresmo, also are French. All this explains Azarenka’s crash course in the language, even if most members of the team have a global outlook and, in most cases, home addresses outside France.
“That’s why we are smiling when we see or hear or read about the French connection,” Sumyk said. “Of course we are French, but we feel like citizens of the world a little bit. It’s weird to say that, but we feel like, I don’t know, this is not really a French team.”
Sumyk, a modest club player in his youth in Brittany, left for Florida in his 20s and eventually began coaching Meilen Tu, the former tour player from the United States who is now his wife and Azarenka’s agent. He and Tu live in Calabasas, Calif., north of Los Angeles. Bruyère lives outside London. Mauresmo, like many present and former French tennis stars, resides officially in Switzerland.
But Monte Carlo is now the hub in the spinning wheel of Azarenka’s peripatetic life. She and her team gather there or, more often than not, elsewhere. They spent Christmas in Dubai with her boyfriend, the tennis player Sergei Bubka Jr., and his father Sergei Bubka, the former world-champion pole-vaulter from Ukraine.
“This lifestyle is really difficult, but it’s also really interesting,” Azarenka said in an interview Monday. “I don’t know on the part of being a coach, but as a player you can only appreciate those people who travel with you so much and they just kind of dedicate their life to you. So that’s really something that you cannot say thank you with words.”
Sumyk, tan and tattooed, has also coached the tour players Elena Likhovtseva, Gisela Dulko, Ann Kremer and Vera Zvonareva. He was between jobs and spending a rare Christmas with his French family when Azarenka, who knew him through his wife, Meilen Tu, called and asked him to be her coach.
Two and a half years into their professional relationship, Sumyk still has no formal contract with Azarenka, which they say suits them both.
“I’m a very honest person,” Azarenka said. “We never have a problem with that. We have complete trust, which is perfect. We don’t need that. We are fair with each other. A lot of coaches sometimes wouldn’t say something that you are doing wrong just because they are afraid to lose their job. Sam will tell me right away. He’s not afraid to lose his job. He said, ‘Well I’m always going to be honest with you.’ And I appreciate that.”
It has not been a trouble-free rise to the top. Azarenka dropped from No. 7 at the end of 2009 to No. 10 at the end of 2010. An intense personality with a perfectionist streak, Azarenka considered quitting the sport early in 2011, only to find renewed inspiration from her grandmother in Minsk, who urged her to press on and emphasize the positive. But her climb has been steady and convincing since then. Her fiery on-court behavior still resurfaces, — she dropped a racket and shrieked in dismay on Monday — but Azarenka credits Sumyk for helping her manage it better.
“I don’t think he made me do it,” she said. “I feel he was guiding me, which is the smartest way, because when you push somebody to do something they don’t know or they have never experienced, they kind of put a block on it and reject it. It’s like a parents-kid relationship.”
Sumyk was also open and confident enough to agree to add Mauresmo as a consultant in April after Azarenka had already won her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open this year and risen to No. 1. The idea was to avoid complacency and to bring on board a former champion who knew how to navigate the game’s biggest tournaments.
“She was the same as me,” Azarenka said of Mauresmo’s approach to her career. “We built a team around us, and we are working toward the same goal. There might be better coaches, there might be better fitness trainers, there might be better physios in the world. But for me, it’s important to have people who really have my back and who really care about me and who really want to succeed with me.”
It is interesting that Mauresmo’s first Grand Slam tournament with Azarenka is the French Open, a tournament Mauresmo never came close to winning — despite her clay-court prowess — because of the weight of expectations, both her own and the French public’s.
Azarenka’s edgy, erratic performance Monday must have looked uncomfortably familiar to Mauresmo, who was sitting next to Sumyk in the players’ box, folding and unfolding her arms as the errors and shrieks piled up.
“To be honest, I think it’s a new situation for her,” Mauresmo said on the British network ITV. “It’s the first time she is playing a Grand Slam tournament as the No. 1 player in the world. She was maybe not expecting this emotion to get to her, but it got to her today. So now I think my role and Sam’s role is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Or at least if it happens that she react a little quicker than she did today.”
It all worked out in the end this time, though, unless of course you were a Brianti fan, and now Azarenka can keep working on her French. A victory speech “en français” does not seem likely, however, unless she starts playing much better tennis.