Victoria Azarenka down and out
LONDON -- More than once Wednesday, as the already close confines of Wimbledon's Court 3 closed in ever tighter, Victoria Azarenka flashed her coach one of those looks that begged both for answers and sympathy.
Alas, there was nothing Sam Sumyk or any one of Azarenka's loyal but outnumbered followers could do for her in a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 loss to 45th-ranked Bojana Jovanovski that showed two things.
One, nobody can drop into a Grand Slam off one match played in three months and not look it. And two, the WTA desperately needed Azarenka back.
It's not that Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and some other notables like Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep haven't provided excitement and decent storylines since Azarenka injured her left foot just before the Australian Open in January.
And it's not like Azarenka has ever rallied the crowds. She's not that kind of player, for various reasons both old (her display of gamesmanship against Sloane Stephens at the 2013 Australian Open) and silly (her grunting).
What she is, simply, is one of the game's great athletes and toughest competitors, one of the very few players, if not only upper-echelon player, who can stand toe-to-toe with Serena without inexplicably wilting (see: Sharapova) or being intimidated (see: everyone).
Azarenka is a 6-foot, 150-pound, nearly 25-year-old all-court powerhouse who has won the Australian Open twice, been to the US Open finals twice and reached the semis of the French Open and Wimbledon a combined three times.
She was ranked No. 1 in 2012, when she began the season 26-0 (the best start to a season since Martina Hingis in 1997). And she is capable of winning every time she steps onto the court, including Wednesday -- just her third tournament and fourth match since March -- which is why she was so predictably annoyed afterward.
"It's consistency," she said. "It's not enough. It's a little bit too many mistakes, like not closing the opportunities, not being sharp enough. There are a lot of things that still have to be tuned and have to be practiced. It basically goes down to back to work."
And patience, she admitted, is not one of her best attributes.
"I'm just really pissed off right now for not taking those opportunities," she said, unable to take her mind off converting only three of 16 break points. "I think that's OK to be that way because I really need to go through that and learn from it and just take it from here."
Both Azarenka and Sumyk said she is now pain free and training fully. And despite the break points missed, there were also plenty of glimpses of Azarenka's greatness against an opponent firing 105 mph serves and crisp returns. Despite her self-flagellation, Azarenka had 46 winners to Jovanovski's 27, and came to the net 27 times, winning 21 points, a staggering number nowadays.
"Her fighting spirit is always there and it was there today, no doubt about it," Sumyk said.
Azarenka won her first-round match on her fifth match point against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, a '99 Wimbledon semifinalist, and rallied Wednesday to win the second set against Jovanovski, then broke back twice to stay in the third.
"Honestly, it's encouraging," Sumyk said. "I'd think I'd always rather, if she has to lose, do it that way. But she will be upset and that's fair enough."
As her hard-court season begins, Azarenka said she is looking forward to defending her title in Cincinnati, where she defeated Williams 8-6 in a third-set tiebreaker, and returning to the US Open, where she lost to Williams in the final in another three-setter.
Azarenka was asked what she expects of herself, and she temporarily lost it.
"Do I ever expect anything from myself?" she snapped. "Did you ever hear me, 'I expect that?' I don't think so. I'm going to work hard. What I expect from myself is to work hard and give my best every single day."
That much is predictable, and both her words and her impatience with reporters is all the stuff of champions (see: Williams).
"I have to be [hard on myself]," Azarenka said. "I have to be realistic. I cannot sit here and say it's all great, because there's no moving forward from there. I'm going to be hard on myself just because I want to be better. ... I want to go back to practice like tomorrow, maybe even today. That's it."
That it will be harder to get back to No. 1 than it was to attain it in the first place is all part of the deal.
"I don't care," she said. "I'm ready to work."