MELBOURNE • A rejuvenated former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka believes she is primed for a solid run at the Australian Open after an injury-racked two years, with the pain-free star happy and in form.
The Belarusian won the opening Grand Slam of the season in 2012 and retained the title the following year before injuries stalled her high-flying career.
She struggled with foot and knee problems in 2014 and played only nine tournaments, while also battling depression and a split from long-term boyfriend Stefan Gordy, better known as Redfoo, the US musician and reality TV star.
Then a painful thigh strain last year sent her spiralling down the world rankings.
But she is once again fighting fit and won the build-up Brisbane International last weekend, dropping just 17 games in four matches for her first title since Cincinnati in August 2013, propelling her back into the world top 20 at No. 16.
It sets her up as a legitimate threat at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, with a host of other top players struggling with injuries or illness.
"Definitely a lot more comfortable, a lot more calm, a lot more aware. Happy. Very happy," she told the Herald Sun.
"I was hurt the whole year actually," she added of her troubled 2015 campaign. "There was not a moment where I felt good. (Now) I have no pain.
"There was a lot of medication last year which made me feel crazy actually at some moments.
"I don't respond well to medication. It was a constant battle with pain, with my own fear. Like, is it going to hurt again?
"I don't want to go through that. But it took me to a point where I decided, 'OK, I've got to stop and try to figure out and actually change my life around the tennis court'."
Nicknamed "Vika" and renowned in the past for fiery on-court outbursts, Azarenka is now coached by Wim Fissette after splitting with long-time mentor Sam Sumyk. She said it took her time to adjust to the changes.
"I had a lot of changes last year, so it took a little bit of time to regroup, reorganise, mature a little bit, understand how to organise yourself," she said, adding that she was once again enjoying her tennis.
"Being an athlete, we always think about physical performance and tactical performance. I think mental preparation is very important - feeling happy on the court.
"We have such a long season. To have that sense of just enjoyment, joy on the court, I think is important, too."