RCC Honors History Project

“An N.H.L. Star Tends a Rising Teen’s Tennis Goal”- Victoria Azarenka; new york times

Posted by dmcneal347 on May 23, 2009

By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: May 21, 2009
PARIS — With a pure two-handed backhand and her combative nature, Victoria Azarenka has stormed the top 10 of women’s tennis this season. She has won three titles, including the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, and has defeated a former No. 1, Serena Williams, and the current No. 1, Dinara Safina, along the way to a 28-5 match record.

Azarenka, a 19-year-old Belarussian, does not have the clay-court results to put her on the short list of French Open favorites. But there is no question she belongs on some sort of short list heading into play at Roland Garros. She remains on the steady upward curve that has seen her ranking improve significantly every year since she turned professional in 2003, rising from 146 to 9.

“Things have worked for me so far, because I just really wanted it,” Azarenka said last week. “I knew what I was doing, and I knew what I was doing it for. All these little sacrifices, if you do them and you know why you want to do them, they are going to pay off. And it feels so much better to celebrate when you do something and you’ve earned it.”

The last time Azarenka played in the French Open, she was crying amid an overcast fourth-round match against Svetlana Kuznetsova on Court 1. With her mentor, the N.H.L. goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, watching in the stands, Azarenka tried and failed to meet her own expectations.

“Sometimes in the past, she wanted to win so much that it kind of gets in the way,” said Khabibulin, a goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks.

A year later, Azarenka is still tough on herself. But her expectations and achievements are now aligning on a more regular basis.

Growing up in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Azarenka had exposure to elite tennis as a ball girl to Belarussian stars like Natasha Zvereva during tournaments. But Azarenka relied on wealthy benefactors to help her career. She often traveled without her parents. At 10, she said, she went without them to Florida for the Eddie Herr tournament and flew home by herself.

At a sponsor’s urging, she joined the exodus of East European players to Spain at age 14, basing herself in an academy in Marbella.

“I don’t speak Spanish, just a few words,” Azarenka said. “It was tough, but I was a very independent kid. My mom couldn’t travel with me. She always had to work, so I would have to go by myself to the tournaments. Not completely by myself, but, for example, with somebody else’s parents, but that’s pretty much on your own. They just watch that you don’t pretty much get in trouble.”

She did not like conditions in Marbella and returned to Belarus. She had already met Khabibulin and his wife, Victoria, through her mother, who worked in the National Tennis Center in Minsk.

In 2004, Khabibulin, then playing for Tampa Bay, became the first Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup. Victoria Khabibulin had been a promising junior tennis player. The couple’s daughter, Sasha, was playing the game at an elite junior level.

But Azarenka’s ability was obvious. “You could see when she was 14 that she had huge potential and talent,” Victoria Khabibulin said in a telephone interview. “She was striking the ball very nicely, but what really was clear was that she can do anything to win. She was fighting for every ball.”

The Khabibulins offered Azarenka the chance to train and live with them in the United States in August 2005, initially with their financial backing. She still has a room next to the 16-year-old Sasha, at the Khabibulins’ home in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

“Nik wanted to give me an opportunity, because he knows what it is not to have an opportunity to reach a goal,” Azarenka said.

Azarenka might have broken through anyway. She had won the Australian Open juniors in singles and doubles in January 2005. The support from the Khabibulins gave her the platform to aim high.

“She definitely needed to move somewhere that was a lot better tennis-wise,” Nikolai Khabibulin said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where the Blackhawks playing Detroit in the playoffs. “My wife was very eager to help, and I said, ‘Well, if you want to do that, let’s do that.’ We helped her out a little bit financially at first, and then she started making her own money.”

After Azarenka’s arrival in Florida in August 2005, the Khabibulins put her in contact with Antonio van Grichen, a former Portuguese Davis Cup doubles player with whom Sasha trained. Azarenka and van Grichen remain pupil and coach. Khabibulin continues to play an advisory and supporting role, talking with Azarenka regularly by telephone.

“I think it’s very similar what we do mentally in terms of handling the pressure,” Azarenka said. “And talking to Nik really helps.”

Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka at a tournament in Rome on May 7. Azarenka lived with Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin while she trained in the United States.

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