Imagine this. You are a young woman. You have trained for years in your native land to play a sport. This sport is tennis. Many fans of the sport have watched you develop from your junior years. Many have mentioned your game and remarked upon your abilities for years. However, there was one thing holding you back and that was your mentality.
You went through numerous coaches before you finally met the man who would virtually help you to harness your talents and make you into a champion.
While your coach is remaking your career, every time you enter an interview after a tournament you are being questioned repeatedly about one issue relating to your game and that is not about your game. Everyone wants to know about your grunting or shrieking or whatever it is that you do when you hit the ball.
Imagine having to endure that every day of your working life. Just imagine that for a minute. OK what would your attitude be after that? Azarenka became defensive. She would enter interview rooms with a rock on her shoulder. No longer was it about Azarenka and the opponent across the net but it became Azarenka against the tennis community.
I have often wondered why, with so many of the top women grunting, shrieking or making some form of noise while playing, why it is that the media has decided that the person to whom the big stick should be whacked would be Azarenka? There are a fair number of women on Tour who have grunts that are guttural in nature that even someone like myself, who is a big fan of women’s tennis, has to put the tv on mute whenever these women play.
There is Schiavone with her deep throated guttural growl. Venus with her shrieks that, even sometimes I have to mute it. There is the other big blonde offender, Sharapova, who has stated publicly that “no one important has spoken to her about her grunting”. I don’t recall Sharapova getting flack for that comment, or indeed read any interviews where she has been put on the defensive regarding her grunts.
But back to Azarenka, it did not matter that she was making improvements and was stepping up the rankings ladder. Despite everything that she had done, no longer were her matches must see tv just to see what mental breakdown would happen next, but she had grown into her game and had learned to manage her emotions and to still her mental demons. Despite all of that, all the media and commentators focused on were her grunts, and for good measure remarking on her emotional stability. The only time that I can recall where her abilities were remarked upon was when she took down the great Serena Williams in Miami in 2009 in a straights set win. Back then, for a minute it was all about her tennis and how effective it was and nothing about the grunting and the shrieking.
Let me stop for a minute and talk about Azarenka’s game. Whenever I watch tennis, I am always fascinated by the feet of the players. As someone who used to play the game, I have incredibly lousy footwork. I am quick to the ball, but when I get there, I usually end up making an error. As a result, I always watch the pros to see how they get into position and get ready to hit the ball. For that reason, the first time I watched a match with Azarenka, I was fascinated by her feet. I was fascinated by it, not because she was winning, but I thought, she is getting to the ball quickly, why is she making so many errors. Turns out that her forehand, which was a liability back then was always late. Her takeback used to be longer, but now she has shortened it somewhat and she takes the racquet back much earlier.
In any event, I watched the feet of tennis players and apart from Roger Federer, Azarenka is one of the few players that I see that moves her feet in time so adeptly. I always think that they are dancing to a music. I find it fascinating to watch. And yet, commentators never talk about that. They never talk about what makes her so effective on the return of serve. They never talk about her excellent hand/eye co-ordination that allows her to get returns back in play hard and deep and make even the biggest servers think twice about not hitting their spots.
One of the reasons why she has become No.1 is because of her return of serve. It is one of the best in the game. While Serena and Sharapova will hit winners off the return, Azarenka gets the ball back hard, and deep and she takes it so early. She is always in an offensive position. And yet, hardly anyone mentions this.
What does Azarenka have to do to get the tennis media, a field that is populated by old white men. A field that is increasingly filled with not objective journalists, but bloggers who have their own allegiances. No longer are sports writers people who attend tournaments and know the game and the players, but it is increasingly filled with people who are getting their per diem paid by some large conglomerate that is owned by another large conglomerate. Everyone is in it to push Player A and belittle and begrudge Player B.
A friend of mine asked a question, what box has Azarenka not ticked with the media why she has not managed to endear herself to them? I don’t have the answer to that.
It must be increasingly difficult for a young woman, a woman who is the face of the largest professional sport for women, a young woman who is made to feel as if she needs to conform to society’s expectations of what a professional athlete should be.
Funnily enough Azarenka is following in the footsteps of another woman who was also made to feel as if she did not matter. Another woman who had to fight tooth and nail to be accepted by a bunch of old white men. Her name is Billie Jean King. I hope one day Billie Jean will speak out in support of Azarenka.
On the day that she takes the court to defend her Australian Open title, her accomplishments should be shouted from the rooftop. She should be held up to young girls everywhere of what you can accomplish via hard work and dedication. And yet, when she takes the court tonight on Rod Laver Arena she may very well be met with a chorus of boos. She may very well hear so-called fans in the stands hooting every time she hits the ball.
I am all the way in the Cayman Islands, but I can tell you that this is one fan who will be cheering on Vika from my living room and hoping that she is able to raise the Daphne Akhurst trophy in triumph.
PS - Prior to writing this article, my fellow Fed fan and blogger extraordinaire wrote this piece on Azarenka. She wrote it not because she is a big fan of Azarenka. She wrote it because this is what now passes for journalism as it relates to women's tennis.