Monday, March 5, 2012

Sac State coach: Azarenka wasn't kidding around

Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka
Photo by Paul Bauman
   A lot of kids dream of being the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
   Victoria Azarenka, though, was driven to reach the top. Even at 8 years old.
   Growing up in Minsk, Belarus, Azarenka was a coach's dream with legendary self-motivation. She worked incessantly and was never content, always trying to improve.
   Azarenka's dedication paid off with her first Grand Slam singles title in the recent Australian Open and the No. 1 ranking. She is 17-0 with three titles this year entering the BNP Paribas Open, Wednesday through March 18 in Indian Wells.
   "She would say, 'I can't go home. I feel terrible. I can't volley. I need to work on my volley,' " Sacramento State men's coach Slava Konikov, a 50-year-old Minsk native who taught Azarenka from age 8 to 14, said with a heavy accent. "I coach 34 years, and I never see anything like it. Most say, 'I don't have time today.' That's why she's No. 1 now. She told me all the time, 'Coach, let's go.' "
   Azarenka's parents, Alla and Fedor, named their daughter Victoria because it's Latin for victory. Alla, who managed a tennis center, introduced Victoria to the sport at 7 and asked Konikov, an acquaintance, to work with her.
   "She always told me, 'I want to be No. 1,' " said Konikov, who also coached countrymen Max Mirnyi, a former world No. 1 in doubles, and Vladimir Voltchkov, the first qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semifinals (2000) since John McEnroe in 1977. "She give me big energy every practice. ...
   "I tell the (Sac State) guys, 'You need to believe you can be better.' 'Oh, no, Slava, it's tough.' Victoria Azarenka, every practice was like last practice (of her career). It's easy for coach. ...
   "I'm like, 'Come on, you're a kid.' 'I want to be No. 1 -- what I have to do?' 'You have to work five or six hours a day.' "
   No problem. Azarenka, who grew to be 6-foot, practiced five days a week and played matches or tournaments on weekends.
   "She was never sick," Konikov said. "She never missed practice. Same with Mirnyi and Voltchkov. This is very important. She played very fast and hit hard. She told me, 'I want to play like a man, not a girl.' "
   And these were not normal lessons and practice matches.
   "Any ball, if it go out, she play it," Konikov recalled. "She never see lines. She play fence to fence."
   Azarenka did not want a level playing field. She wanted to play with handicaps. Anything she could do to make life on the court tougher on herself, she would. Playing against boys and men. Giving herself only one serve. Giving her opponent the doubles alleys. Starting games at 0-15 or 0-30.
   Azarenka's biggest handicap, though, was built-in. Impatience. If anything, she had too much desire. Konikov recalled the first time he saw Azarenka play.
   "She was very nervous and throwing her racket," he said. "Her problem from the beginning was that after one practice, she wanted to feel she learned something. 'I need to learn the forehand today.' 'No, maybe (it takes) two months or two years.'
   "I told her, 'If you be more patient, you'll be a great tennis player. Tennis is not easy. It's a tough sport.' At 10 or 11, she started to understand."
   Still, Azarenka was never satisfied and needed constant encouragement.
Slava Konikov
Photo by Paul Bauman
   "She was crying every single practice if something was wrong," Konikov continued. "We talked a lot: 'You're great, better than yesterday. You beat this girl.' 'No, she's terrible.' She beat her 6-0, 6-0 but was not excited. Every time, 'No, I want to be better.' "
   In contrast, Konikov mentioned students at the Spare Time Junior Tennis Academy, where he also teaches in Sacramento.
   "(I say,) 'You're missing so many balls. How do you feel?' 'I feel great.' 'Maybe you need to start crying. Why you're not No. 1?' " Konikov said.
   With her talent, size and desire, Azarenka clearly was headed in that direction. 
   "She wasn't my first student," Konikov noted. "I had Mirnyi and Voltchkov. Max said he wanted to play with her (when she was) 11 or 12. Max was (23 or 24). He said (afterward) she can be No.1."
   Tatsiana Kapshai, a Minsk native who plays No. 1 singles as a senior at Sac State, trained with Azarenka from age 12 to 15 at the National Tennis Center. They often played doubles together, winning tournaments in Poland and Portugal, and met once in singles in the 16s.
   "I didn't get too many games," recalled Kapshai, a two-time Big Sky Conference MVP who reached the second round of the NCAA championships last year.
   Kapshai, 23, said Azarenka "always (was) ahead in her game of other girls her age. Plus, she never had enough tennis. She always wanted more, more, more."
Tatsiana Kapshai
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Like Konikov, Kapshai was amazed by Azarenka's work ethic.
   "She was definitely born with all the skill needed, but it also took a lot of work," she said. "Since she was really young, she was always working a lot. It's nature and nurture. She never gave up. Even if she had a bad day, she would go and practice."
  Maria Meliuk, another Sac State senior from Minsk, plays No. 6 singles for the Hornets. She faced Azarenka once, losing 6-0, 6-0 at age "10 or 11," she said.
   "I knew many coaches who said she'd be top 10 (in the world). They saw it coming," Meliuk said.
  Belarus' tennis tradition inspired Azarenka, according to Konikov. In particular, she had Natalia Zvereva as a role model. Zvereva, now 40, was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame two years ago after amassing 20 Grand Slam titles, 18 in women's doubles and two in mixed doubles, and climbing to No. 5 in the world in singles.
   "Victoria watched how she played and practiced," Konikov said. "She said, 'I want to be like Natalia.' "
  Azarenka's grandmother also has been a major influence. Azarenka, distraught after losing to Li Na in the fourth round of last year's Australian Open, almost quit tennis before receiving a pep talk from her grandmother.
  "My grandmother is incredible person," Azarenka, 22, said after beating Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open. "She worked all her life until she was 71. We had to make her sign a paper that she's going to give up her job ... because she would get up at five in the morning and still go to work.
   "It's just amazing to see how much people work, and we are here playing tennis and sometimes complaining about little things. I lost a tennis match. So what? I mean, life goes on, and you keep going. It's just a tennis match. You have to look in a bigger picture."
   Konikov, tired of working 12- to 14-hour days coaching Belarus' Davis Cup squad and junior national girls team, moved to Sacramento in 2004. He became the Sac State men's coach the following year.     
   "I was really sad when he had to leave for the States ... " Azarenka said after beating fellow shrieker Maria Sharapova to win the 2010 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, foreshadowing this year's Australian Open final. "He's a big part of my career. ... We had so much fun together. He really helped me out, especially when my parents didn't have much money."
   Azarenka described Konikov as "really funny. I remember one time I was practicing with one of the guys, and (the player) kept spinning his racket on his finger. It was really pissing (Konikov) off, and he smacked a ball right at him."
   Shortly after Konikov moved to Sacramento, Azarenka relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., to train because then-Phoenix Coyotes goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, a family friend, lived there. Khabibulin is from Sverdlovsk, Russia, but his wife, also named Victoria, is Belarusian, and their daughter, Sasha, played junior tennis.
   Konikov watched this year's Australian Open final on television from 2:30 to 4 a.m. in a Tucson, Ariz., hotel room. The Sac State men played Arizona at 9 a.m. that day.
   "I didn't sleep all night," Konikov said.
   Azarenka, playing in her first Grand Slam singles final, demolished Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion, 6-3, 6-0. As Konikov watched the telecast, his life flashed before his eyes.
   "The camera showed Voltchkov coaching Sharapova. (It was) my student working with Sharapova and my student playing against Sharapova," he said wistfully. "It was very nice."
   Konikov called Azarenka's mother afterward and spoke to Victoria the next day.
   "She said, 'Slava, I'm No. 1.' "

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