When spending time in Dubai last year, Australian Open tennis champion Victoria Azarenka picked the brain of a man who knows all about breaking records.
Azarenka, 22, sat down with Olympic gold medal-winning pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, the father of her boyfriend, a Ukrainian tennis player of the same name. The six-time world champion answered her questions and settled her mind.
“I said to her that she is ready; in 2012 you will be No. 1,” the former athlete, who is president of Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee, said in an interview.
He was right. Azarenka, who fought back to win her opening match at the French Open yesterday against Alberta Brianti of Italy, took her first Grand Slam title in January in Australia. She beat former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in the final and climbed to the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.
After Melbourne, the Belarussian kept on winning. Her run of 26 straight victories to start the season was halted at the end of March with a quarterfinal defeat to France’s Marion Bartoli in Miami. The streak, which also included titles in Sydney, Doha and Indian Wells, was the best start since Martina Hingis opened 1997 on a 37-0 run.
“I don’t know anybody whom you can get better advice from,” Azarenka said of her meeting with Bubka in an interview at the Rome Masters shortly before Roland Garros. “I had quite a lot of discussions with him. He’s such an incredible person and athlete. I am really lucky to have that opportunity.”
Spain’s Rafael Nadal started his quest to become the only man to win the French Open seven times with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 win against Simone Bolelli of Italy today. Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova of Russia beat Romania’s Alexandra Candantu 6-0, 6-0.
Azarenka struggled yesterday on the clay courts of Roland Garros, coming within two games of becoming the first female top seed to lose in the opening round at the tournament.
Azarenka’s best Grand Slam performance before the Australian Open was a semifinals spot at Wimbledon last year, where she lost to eventual champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Previously, she lost quarterfinals at the 2009 and 2011 French Opens, 2009 Wimbledon and the 2010 Australian Open.
She thought about quitting the sport after losing in the first round of an event in Doha in February 2011. At Wimbledon, Azarenka told reporters that her grandmother had talked her out of it, pointing out that life as a tennis player was a lot better than trying to hold down three jobs at the same time.
Bubka, 48, said he’s seen Azarenka change mentally.
“She started to know herself much better and understand how to cope with stress, with pressure in different circumstances, in different conditions,” he said.
Bubka dominated pole vaulting after winning his first world title at the age of 19. He was the first man to clear six meters, and improved his own world record 35 times. The Olympic champion of the 1988 Seoul Games when he competed for the Soviet Union, his world mark of 6.14 meters set in 1994 still stands.
After retiring as an athlete, he became a sports administrator, joining the International Olympic Committee. He’s also a member of the organizing committee for soccer’s European Championship, which starts June 8 in Ukraine and Poland.
Azarenka’s maturity is starting to show. She was able to overcome 60 unforced errors in her opening match in Paris.
“Bad days happen,” Azarenka told reporters yesterday. “I managed to go through those 60 mistakes and still win.”
Eighteen months ago, the result would have been different, she said.
“Before maybe I would have just given up and gone home,” Azarenka said. “I was kind of thinking there was a flight straight to Minsk around 3 p.m. tomorrow so I could catch that, but I didn’t want to leave too soon.”
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