That's two tournaments now where I have been present at a Victoria Azarenka trophy hoisting ceremony. Each time, my girl Masha had to stand there and stare off into the distance as Vika scrunched her face into a smile and hopped about after only dropping five games on her way to victory.
They haven't been my most pleasant memories, let's just say that.
Let's be clear about something. I have always loved Vika's game. When she's on she looks like a top 5 player who is destined to win a Slam. No really! She's one of the best returners in the game and when her movement is one, her groundstrokes look devastatingly effortless.
But as everyone knows, my fandom is sooooooooo unrelated to a player's skill level. For me, it's what's underneath that counts.
To put it nicely, Vika can be prickly. Over the past few years her attitude around the grounds and in press conferences has ranged from aloof to standoffish. She always looked put-upon, annoyed that she had to deal with fans or media. The latter doesn't bother me, really. I absolutely understand when a player gets annoyed with the press. But the number of times I've seen Vika brush off fans and lose her cool with ball kids, two groups of people you have no business being rude to, are too numerous to count.
So given my limited experience with her in the press room, I settled in to her press conference preparing for a happy Vika who would impatiently check her watch and phone, give cliche answers that work as quotes for articles but give you no real insight into a player, and basically look like she wanted to be anywhere but there.
As it turns out, Vika never showed up. But some chick who was remarkably charming, insightful, and engaging, who looked a hell of a lot like Vika, showed up and had me smiling and laughing out loud throughout. That chick was awesome. So I'm going to write about her instead.
It's hard to truly capture how awesome this press conference was. I know it doesn't translate on paper. A lot of Not-Vika's charm was in her shy smiles after she dropped some sarcasm, her easy body language, and her earnest and thoughtful tone when she spoke.
Perhaps the most significant Q&A that signaled to me that this was not the Vika I thought I knew was this:
Q: What's the key about your patience? Because in the past, you lose your head and you lose the match.
A: You're absolutely right.
Whoa. This was the moment when I sat up and took notice. This presser wasn't going to be like that other Vika's pressers. I've seen her get defensive when people phrase their questions like that. She seems to think (and I don't disagree with her) that someone's taking a swipe at her. I've seen her shut down when this happens, looking visibly annoyed and ready to just pull the ripcord on the interview.
Not this time. This time she looked the questioner dead in the eye and affirmatively said "You're absolutely right." She elaborated:
"What's the key? I just don't care if I lose. I'm just there to do the best I can. I'm going to fight for every ball, and for me it's just to do the best job as possible. What outcome comes out, it's not up to me. I'm just there to do my best job.... You always care to win. What I meant by not caring about losing is not to create such a big drama out of it. If you lose the match, I mean, you just lose a tennis match. It's not the end of the world. You can see so many things happening in the world, and I know it sounds a little bit out there, but look what happens in Japan for example, and we're here playing tennis, being able to do something that we love. So, I mean, why make a big deal out of it?"
WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT. WHO ARE YOU?!?!??
This coming from the woman who has spent much of her young career melting down in tight moments, losing her head, getting pissed and angry at anything and everything, and getting brain-locked as a result?
"I think I changed my mentality a little bit. I'm enjoying myself so much on the court there's no room for me for frustration, even though I know somebody's really pissed off about it. They want to see me very emotional. They like it. But that's how I am right now."
Now, the cynic in me maaaaaaaay have thought, "Pfft. Of course it's easy to say all the right things and be smiling and charming when you just won a big title and embarrassed Maria Sharapova on the way. You'll revert to your old self when things suck again." After all, she did add the "right now" caveat at the end. Maybe she won't feel like that tomorrow.
As I said early last week, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Vika at All-Access Hour before the tournament. No one was talking to her and I felt a little bad about that (I'm only 98% cold-hearted bitch) so I sat down and chatted with her about a number of different topics, ranging from on-court stuff to off-court stuff. She was surprisingly willing, open, and honest when giving her answers. It was a nice conversation. I walked away pleasantly surprised but thought, "Well, everyone has their good days."
Then, on Friday afternoon, Vika was called in to do a pre-final press conference. I was at my desk and was, quite frankly, too lazy to walk down two flights of stairs to go to the interview room (BLOGGER!), but I knew something was up when they announced the press conference three times in a five minute span. "Ruh roh. No one's there." I turned on my TV to catch the feed from the interview room and sure enough, instead of sitting at the desk on stage to do her presser, Vika was sitting at the edge of the stage, holding the microphone talking to what had to be a very small group of reporters. You guys, she was smiling and laughing. She didn't look annoyed. She looked...relaxed. Like she was having fun. I dismissed it at the time. I didn't have the audio on so for all I know she was laughing because a journo dropped his pants.
Those anecdotes are a long and rambley way for me to say that she's been in good spirits all week. She had no reason to be at All-Access Hour. She was coming off a leg injury in Indian Wells that left her unsure of her ability to perform here. So it wasn't the winning that was putting her in a good mood. She actually just seems to have mellowed out. Some might say that she's finally matured. I don't really like saying that. It sounds so condescending, like, "Oh, little girl just grewed up."
Personally I think she just had a breakthrough. She sat down, assessed her life, decided she wasn't happy, and changed her perspective. People do that all the time. Good for her. This new perspective looks good on her.
Not surprisingly, Vika's pulled out of Marbella and Masha's declined a wildcard into Charleston. They've both had a successful four weeks at the office and, as they both want to make some headway on clay, should take the time to rest up, recharge, and take care of any niggles that would otherwise flare up immediately on clay.
I guess I'll end this post with the email I sent to the WTA during her press conference:
"Um...Vika's killing this presser. Slow clap."
(Pics: Forty Deuce)