DOHA, Qatar – When top-ranked Victoria Azarenka thinks about her newfound success, she might want to thank Daniela Hantuchova.
She lost to Hantuchova in the first round at the Qatar Open a year ago, causing a crisis of confidence in the 22-year-old Belarusian. She rushed home, ready to tell her family she wanted to quit the sport she had grown to despise.
"It was just not fun for me to do because I'm the type of player that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of desire," Azarenka said.
"Every time I was stepping on the court, it was like a misery to me, so I just told my mom, I don't want to play anymore because it's not fun. She's like, 'You know what? I think maybe you're tired, you're burned out. Just come home and see what happens.'"
Rather than quitting, Azarenka took a brief break and it did her wonders.
She had her best season in 2011, winning 55 of 72 matches to finish the year at No. 3. She returned in 2012, winning the Australian Open and becoming No. 1. She won her 16th straight match Saturday, reaching the Qatar Open final with a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska.
Azarenka credits her transformation to a greater maturity on the court instilled by coach Sam Sumyk and improved fitness that has helped reduce injuries and strengthen her stamina. She also no longer has midcourt meltdowns, muttering to herself or dissolving in tears when a match starts slipping away.
"Last year by this time I was a little bit of a mess. I couldn't control any of my emotions, and I didn't really enjoy any part playing tennis," she said. "But when I came back after Doha to Indian Wells I had to change, my mentality on court, the way I approached the match, the way I approached the tough moment."
Azarenka said the key has been not taking every point to heart.
"I don't try to think why is it happening to me," she continued. "I just try to accept and deal with it deal with the situation. Every opponent is going to try to beat me, beat the other players. I just try to stay really focused on each moment because I know it doesn't matter what the score is. You always have a chance until the match is done."
Azarenka has shown this week in Doha why she now is considered the best player on the tour. The lanky, 6-footer has been in command, her victories peppered with her trademark whoops that have been the talk of the tour for some time.
Her play has won accolades from Martina Navratilova, who has suggested that Azarenka and Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova have the talent and personality for a great rivalry. U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, who will face Azarenka in the Qatar final, also has taken notice.
"She's always been very consistent throughout the year, but hadn't made that breakthrough from quarters or semis at Grand Slams, and then last year she made semis at Wimby, and then she comes out and wins the Aussie Open," Stosur said.
"I think it's one of those things where, as a player gets a little more mature, maybe just all around gets a little bit better. Once you've got that confidence, it doesn't matter how you play. If you've got that, it can definitely be a winning formula."
In ascending to No. 1, Azarenka replaced Caroline Wozniacki, who was long criticized during her reign for not having won a Grand Slam tournament.
"It has been great to watch Vika over the last few years develop both as a player and as a person," WTA President Stacey Allaster said in an email. "It's terrific to see her put all of the elements together needed to get to the very top of our sport and it's really her immense talent, perseverance and determination that have gotten her to this point. It's great to have her as one of the ambassadors of our sport."
Azarenka clearly seems to be having much more fun as the No. 1.
She fills every news conference with jokes — asked about baggage of being No. 1, she joked she always travels with lots of bags. She is more open than ever, sharing her new love for photography and recalling stories about her grandmother whom she has called "one of the most optimistic people on the planet."
Azarenka insists she remains the same "hardworking tennis player" she was before Australia, though she acknowledges her celebrity status is on the rise and more players are motivated to beat her. After she won the Australian Open, she traveled to Los Angeles to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and appeared on the "Ellen" show.
"Of course it's a great thing to win the major, but as I mentioned before, I want to keep going the same way, and I am just hungry for the new ones to come," she said, referring to her desire to win an Olympic gold medal this year along with more Grand Slams. "I mean, it's a great feeling to have that, but it's time to move on and work harder to get another one."
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