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Azarenka brings new mindset to French Open

Friday - 5/24/2013, 6:13am  ET

Belarus' Victoria Azarenka reacts after losing a point during her final match against Serena Williams, of the United States, at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Sunday, May 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

HAROLD HECKLE
Associated Press

Victoria Azarenka used to create the impression on court she was contending with more than an opponent. There seemed to be demons at play as well.

Consider her fourth-round meltdown against Nadia Petrova at Wimbledon in 2009. She began mimicking her own movements before sarcastically shaking a linesperson's hand and telling the chair umpire, "You guys have so much power to ruin the whole match."

She is now a more focused two-time Grand Slam tournament winner and awaiting the clay courts at Roland Garros, where last year she lost her No. 1 ranking to eventual champion Maria Sharapova.

"The main goal for me is the French Open," she told The Associated Press.

Azarenka is the first to acknowledge she can still cause herself problems -- like losing her temper, especially when her serve is off.

She says her turnaround began at the 2011 Australia Open. Azarenka, seeded eighth, lost to eventual finalist Li Na in the fourth round. The great promise Azarenka had shown by winning 24 of her first 26 matches in 2009 seemed to be fizzling. She was distraught and flew home to speak with her grandmother.

"I decided I didn't want to play anymore and I had to re-evaluate a lot of things," she said. Her grandmother advised Vika -- the name she is affectionately known by -- that the solution was to find a way to be happy.

The words had a big impact on the 23-year-old Azarenka, who had begun playing tennis at age 7 at a club in Minsk, where her mother had a job.

"Home will always be Belarus for me," she said, recalling how she used to hit balls against the club's wall, honing skills that would later characterize a game marked by quickness and bursts of speed.

Her grandmother made her realize her deep feelings for tennis. But she also knew she had to find a sense of calm and satisfaction on and off the court.

"I understood how much I loved tennis, and that every time I step out on the court I want to have fun and enjoy playing," she said.

Azarenka felt she needed to be in the company of those who understood her and could help overcome disappointments and focus on how to win. Her coach, Frenchman Sam Sumyk, has been a cornerstone of Azarenka's new approach.

"My team is very, very important to me," she said, adding it had taken a long time to find the right coach and advisers.

While on tour, she stays within a tight circle. She has sought people with "different characters," who can help her communicate and understand what was going on around her.

"Sharing the same goal, we all work like a watch," she said. "I'm happy to know that I have people I can trust."

She was ranked No. 58 when she visited her grandmother. When Azarenka returned to the Australian Open, her new style -- a feisty mix of athleticism and boxerlike concentration -- enabled her to beat defending champion Kim Clijsters and finalist Sharapova. She captured her first Grand Slam singles title and ascended to the No. 1 ranking.

At the start of this year, all eyes were on Azarenka to see if she could retain the Australian title. She did, defeating Li 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Her climb through the rankings, however, has been halted by an injury that prevented her from playing at Indian Wells, Calif., and at the Miami Open.

"I started the year very well and I was feeling I was in a good condition," she said. "But the injury was not letting me do what I wanted to do, so I had to take time off. It was a hard decision."

Part of her routine now is to take the court wrapped in what she calls her cocoon. Before a match, she tries to do what makes her feel good.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs, personal ups and downs in my career," she said. "When I go out there, I play with my heart. You can see it by my emotions, by the way I play. I express it very deeply. So this emotional and mental space is very important to me."

Her preparation includes dance, which she said helps her get "into that mental stage, into that bubble when you walk onto the court."

At 6-feet tall Azarenka does not believe she is anywhere near her physical potential.

"That's really exciting," she said. "I haven't even stopped growing yet."

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