MELBOURNE • Victoria Azarenka does not always sleep well. This has nothing to do with her long recovery from injury. It has even less to do with the prospect of facing Serena Williams. The former world No. 1 instead lies awake at night wondering how to be more creative.
A tennis world without creativity would not be a world worth inhabiting for the 26-year-old. It is not about winning, it is about the fun, the beauty and the rhythm.
Occasionally, she forgets that she is on court and pretends instead that she is on a dance floor. Sometimes, she will play her most effective tennis by thinking about art or by swaying to the beat of a dance track.
"Being creative is the only way I can function," says the Belarusian.
"That's the best way for me,it's what makes me happy, this is what drives me to wake up inthe morning. This is what keeps me up at night and does not let me sleep - which can be a bit tricky - but it is about using my brain and body to strive for motivation, andit helps me on the court. It helps me to be more excited on the court because I play with so much passion.
"Have you seen my warm-up? There's a lot of dancing, that gives me a state of mind. Sometimes I even imagine that I am not on a tennis court but that I am on a dance floor. And I guess that makes me a little bit different to anybody else."
Azarenka is in Melbourne for the Australian Open, which begins today. It is her favourite Grand Slam tournament. She won it in 2012 and successfully defended her title the next year.
She was on the cusp of greatness, but a foot injury led to her tumbling down the rankings. She either missed tournaments or struggled to find form in them, never free from pain. Suddenly, though, she is the name on everyone's lips Down Under.
Having triumphed in the final of the Brisbane International on Saturday, it is Azarenka who is being tipped as the only obstacle likely to stand in the path of world No. 1 Serena Williams.
The women's draw is blighted by injuries. A fit Azarenka would at least give the American something to think about.
"I'm excited to face my biggest challenge, if (a match with Williams) happens," she says.
Woe betide anyone who even intimates that facing Williams while the American is within touching distance of matching Steffi Graf's 22 Grand Slam singles titles is daunting.
"She's a true sports legend. It's always a pleasure to play against her, to play against the best," Azarenka says. "I never want to run away from a challenge. Why wouldn't you want to go out there and play against the best player? What is the reason for practice, why try to perfect your game? For what? To try to be the best player."
She and Williams have similar character traits. The 34-year-old likes to break out of the tennis bubble and Azarenka, too, does not want to be held within its confines.
She did some research and was not entirely happy when she found that the mention of her name prompted vocabulary linked to tennis. Most players, as they prepare for a Grand Slam, might be pleased at the focus shown by the public, but not Azarenka. She launched a music video last Tuesday that she produced and directed, which she hopes will reveal the "diversity" in her personality.
"It is my main job but I'd like to show who I am," she says. "I have more to offer than tennis."
Her versatility may be what unsettles Williams, should they play against each other, although Azarenka thinks hard when asked if she needs to be more creative when facing the world No. 1.
"Tennis is a game of adjustment, we play on different surfaces in different cities," she says.
"It will be about adaptation."
THE TIMES, LONDON