Tennis: Azarenka says new-found confidence a result of conquering anxiety

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrating her win over American Jessica Pegula in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE – Victoria Azarenka said changing her mindset and conquering her anxiety had paved the way for her return to the semi-finals of the Australian Open after a dominant victory over third seed Jessica Pegula on Tuesday.

The 2012 and 2013 champion was at her aggressive best on Rod Laver Arena to beat her American opponent 6-4, 6-1. She said later that she had been dealing with a fear of failure in the last few months and the problem had started to escalate.

“I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything I feel good about myself, not even one sentence. I broke a few racquets after my match in Ostrava (in October). That was a tough moment for me,” the 33-year-old told reporters.

“From then, I tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative. Accepting the anxiety that I have. Accepting the fear that I have. Working through it. That was step by step.

“I kept trying to go a step forward, another challenge. I learnt how to start to build a process that is step by step instead of jumping to conclusions in the situation... which is pretty hard to do.

“But I’m pretty happy that the process I’m going through makes me feel confident about myself, happy about myself, and helps me to be more open, be more accepting, be compassionate. ‘Compassionate’ was a hard word for me to understand.”

Azarenka was asked if going through the process of dealing with her anxiety helped her understand her problems in 2013, when she had to fend off accusations of gamesmanship after her semi-final win over Sloane Stephens at Melbourne Park.

The Belarusian had taken a near-10 minute medical time-out after blowing five match points and denied the charge following her win, saying she needed treatment for a rib injury that had affected her breathing during a tense phase of the match.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through in my professional career,” Azarenka said.

“The way I was treated after that moment, the way I had to explain myself until 10.30pm because people didn’t want to believe me.

“There’s sometimes an incredible desire for a villain and a hero story that has to be written. But we’re not villains, we’re not heroes, we’re regular human beings that go through so many things.

“It didn’t matter how many times I said my story, it didn’t cut through. Actually it’s funny that you’re saying that because I was thinking about it. It took me 10 years to get over it. I’m finally over that.”

Azarenka faces Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the last four – a battle between the last two Grand Slam champions left in the draw. “She’s powerful. Big serve. She’s in the semi-final, so she’s playing amazing. She had tough wins,” the veteran said.

“It’s going to be a big challenge. I’m excited about that.”

Rybakina sealed a 6-2, 6-4 triumph over Jelena Ostapenko with her 11th ace, her 190kmh serve proving her most potent weapon.

The Moscow-born Kazakh has delivered 35 aces in reaching the final four, more than any other woman at Melbourne Park. REUTERS, AFP

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