How Azarenka made it to top of the world

FEISTY: Victoria Azarenka almost gave the game away two years ago.
FEISTY: Victoria Azarenka almost gave the game away two years ago.

From the close proximity of a shared hotel couch, her minders keeping a discreet distance, Victoria Azarenka's eye contact is as direct as her answers.

This is the year-end world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion, the feisty 23-year-old from Belarus explaining the contrast between her on- and off-court selves.

''I'm very different off court,'' Azarenka says. ''I think people don't know me as well yet, which I try to show a little bit using social media and stuff, that's where they really see behind the scenes how I am.

''I'm funky, I love to joke around. I love to joke around, all the time. We have a good time. I love to dance. I love music, and it's always exciting. On the court I'm just trying to be so focused, and trying to create my own bubble; that keeps me determined and showing my best tennis. That's how I have to be to play good. But look at me now. Am I intense?''

''No,'' we venture, on cue.

Smile. ''There you go.''

Well, actually, perhaps a little, but it seems almost impolite to say so. The fiery baseliner and unapologetic grunter certainly has her critics, but she is chatting openly and pleasantly, discussing the year that brought her a maiden grand slam singles title and the top ranking, her positive feelings about another January in Australia, where she also won her first major at junior level (in 2005) and her first WTA title (Brisbane 2009).

Is it true, then, as experienced coach Brad Gilbert and many others believe, that temperament has been the biggest change - and improvement - in Azarenka?

''I wouldn't agree with that, really,'' she says. Then: ''I wouldn't disagree with that, but I think there were a lot of things that improved and grew on me, from [2011], because I felt that was the most educational for me. I learnt so much about my body, about how to handle different situations in the tournament, off court as well, so it was a big change. I took those experiences and I tried to learn from them, because I feel like you learn from those moments much more than from when everything is good. You just kind of roll with it, and sometimes you forget that you have to stay grounded and stay on your feet to keep improving. I feel like the biggest change was my fitness; it jumped higher, a lot.''

Azarenka certainly is never dull. She walks out for matches with earphones in, tracksuit hood up. She plays a high-powered, high-decibel game in a way and with an attitude that is not to everyone's taste, but, she says, nor is it as important for her to be liked as it is to be genuine.

''I always accept who I am, and I feel you always have to show your real self, because when you try to put on a mask it's not you,'' she said. ''Give everything like I do on the court - I live it all, all my hard work and everything. So I never try to cover up who I am, and the one rule I always have is to be honest, but not only honest with people, but with yourself, so [I'm] never changing that.''

With 15-time major champion Serena Williams, and career-slam-winning Maria Sharapova, Azarenka is now one of the ''big three'' in women's tennis, in a stable headed by coach and calming influence Sam Sumyk. A junior prodigy who was earmarked early for greatness, the woman known as ''Vika'' has experienced some turbulence on the way to becoming just the 11th year-end No. 1 in WTA rankings history.

Among her sacrifices was the decision to leave her family behind in Minsk in her mid-teens to base herself in Spain and then Arizona. Less than two years ago, she was so disillusioned she considered giving the game away - before a famous heart-to-heart with her grandmother, a former cleaner who had lived through the hard Soviet years, and delivered some perspective on exactly where lost tennis matches rate on the hardship scale.

Perhaps now, with that Australian Open breakthrough of 12 months ago as vindication, the self-imposed pressure to succeed has eased? ''Yeah, sometimes media and people saying 'oh, she's good, she's good, but she hasn't won', it can get into your head and it did at some point before, I wanted to stop,'' Azarenka admits.

''But I changed my vision of how I want to accept that pressure, of how I want to handle those situations when somebody's telling you something. That was a big change.''

The No 1 slot is one that can be marked off the list, an honour she carried from Melbourne Park 12 months ago on what was a wound-up-and-wide-awake flight back to the US for Fed Cup duty. ''I took two sleeping pills, 'hopefully I will sleep', but I was sitting like this [mimics bolt upright] for 15 hours straight,'' she laughs.

And if the top has proved to be just a brief stopover for the likes of Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina in recent years, then Azarenka is as aware of those rivals coveting the position as she would be of Williams' acknowledgement as the official player-of-the-year and the American's favouritism to win a sixth Open.

Still, it is Azarenka who is defending the year's first major title, having recovered from her pedicure gone wrong, and only when the fortnight starts does she expect to know how that will feel. ''You know what, I'll have to experience that, because it never happened to me, so I will definitely be looking forward to taking all this experience in, and actually living this experience, so for me it will be a couple of new feelings. It's going to be exciting for sure.''

The Age