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Copyright Feb 2012 by Paul Fein

How Coach Sam Sumyk Molded Victoria Azarenka into a Champion

Victoria Azarenka

    She reigns as Queen Victoria. Her Australian Open tour de force made her No. 1 in the world. However, Victoria Azarenka's ascension to the tennis throne has been anything but smooth.

     Azarenka used to be known as much for her mental meltdowns—such as blowing a 6-4, 4-0 lead against Serena Williams at the 2010 Australian Open—frequent injury retirements and high-pitched shrieks, as for her powerful groundstrokes and considerable talent. She even considered quitting the pro tour until her grandmother talked her out of it.

     The temperamental Belarusian didn't live up to the high expectations she created when she won 24 of her first 26 matches in 2009. That year Azarenka won the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open, reached the French Open and Wimbledon quarterfinals, and zoomed up to No. 7.

     "I was young. I think I didn't really handle that success too well," Azarenka, now 22, recently confided. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I achieved so much.' I didn't really think that I needed to improve more. … Maybe somewhere deep inside I was really satisfied with that. Now I have a different approach. I'm never satisfied. I'm very hungry and I want to be better and better every day I step on the court."

     Azarenka gives much of the credit for improving her on-court game and mentality to Sam Sumyk, her coach for the past two years. In this interview  Sumyk, a 44-year-old Frenchman, reveals how he helped Azarenka develop her vast potential and become a champion.

     Would you please talk about your tennis background and how you became a coach.
     I never planned to become a tennis coach. In fact, I had wanted to become a fighter pilot. I was ranked as a club-level player in France. I was helping my club, Tennis Club de Quiberon, as a volunteer by teaching kids and adults because then the club couldn't afford to hire a certified tennis instructor. Instead of going to the university, I decided to get my tennis diploma to become a certified tennis instructor in France. Then I moved to the Lorient Tennis Club, a big tennis club in France, to work as a coach there. That was how my coaching career started.

     Since then I have really enjoyed both training and coaching. In retrospect, teaching at a club was a valuable experience that prepared me for when I moved from France to start a new coaching job at the Palmer Tennis Academy in Tampa, Florida. As a coach, I enjoy the entire process in a player's evolution. You start with a blank page and then you write down your "business plan," always keeping in mind your player's ability and potential.

     When you first saw Victoria play, what were your impressions of her game, her ability and her mentality?
I was coaching Vera Zvonareva when I saw Vika play the first few times. They actually played some doubles together. Since I was coaching another player then, I didn’t really pay attention to Vika’s game. I certainly wasn’t thinking about being her coach or about what I could do to improve her game. I was looking at her game more from an opponent’s point of view and thinking how Vera Zvonareva should play to beat Azarenka.

Only when I started working with Vika did I really start to concentrate on her game and analyze how I could build up all facets of her game. Then I began to realize all the assets she has. She was already a very good player in the Top 10. My job was and still is to make Vika a complete player. My first impression was I liked her attitude. She had willpower, a burning desire to learn, and she was ready to do what it takes to become the best player she can be. I knew she could become a much better tennis athlete. So we’ve worked a lot on that as well.

     What did you learn from coaching former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva that has helped you coach Victoria?
With Vera Zvonareva, I learned there is no good coach without a good player and a good student. Because Vera reached, and was playing at, the top level, I learned what the top level requires in order to get there and to stay at the top. It requires hard work, demanding much from yourself, professionalism, having an open mind about ways to improve, and staying humble.

     About her grueling training in the off-season, Victoria said, “Yeah, it’s been really, really tough—a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, and a lot of blood.” Specifically, what did she do?
Basically during the off-season, Vika did what the other players do—a lot of tennis and fitness. At the end of last year’s season, we sat down and targeted a few aspects of her game we thought were important to improve. We felt that our approach should go more into details and not big changes. She finished 2011 ranked No. 3 in the world, so we knew we didn’t have to rethink or revolutionize her game. So we started focusing on fitness, movement, shot variety to create an all-around game, and a positive mind set and spirit. Everything is interdependent.

     After Victoria won the Australian Open, she credited you for helping take her to the top. “Sam, I feel like he was not pushing me but guiding me towards that mental approach, to that winning attitude,” she said. “He helped me to find my way, not pushing his way. So I think I owe him a lot for that, for educating me. I think it’s important, especially for the young players, to have that education. That you have to learn how to do it yourself, because in the end of the day you’re the one who’s holding the racquet. Nobody else is going to do that for you.” Specifically, how did you educate and guide Victoria?
Once again there is no magical potion. I feel that Vika is the only one of the two of us who can and actually be allowed to talk about this. All I can say is that it’s very important that the player knows herself as much as she possibly can. It’s my job to understand that person as much as I possibly can. So communication and my being a good listener are key factors.

     During the fortnight Azarenka displayed improved volleying, especially during her 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska when she won 20 of 25 points (80%) at net, including nine of nine in the deciding set. Against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis, she grabbed 18 of 23 points (78%) at net. Would you please talk about this part of her game.
As everyone knows, Vika has a very aggressive game, especially her groundstrokes, but also increasingly her game in the forecourt. Because her net game is excellent, we started to think how to emphasize that aspect of her game to apply more pressure on her opponents from every part of the court.

One day she was practicing with John McEnroe, one of the greatest volleyers in history. Then everyone took a break and all of us talked about the game. Of course, John expressed his opinions, and he gave me ideas about how I can help Vika create those offensive situations where Vika can attack high balls, especially floating balls, to finish points at net. The other keys are to recognize these situations early, react quickly and sprint forward so she positions herself much closer to the net. That was a starting point to her improved net game which has become a major part of her success. Now she is becoming a more complete player.

     Victoria converted 10 of 17 break points (58%) against Radwanska and 5 of 7 break points (71%) against Sharapova. Why is Victoria playing the big, pressure points better than ever?
Honestly I don’t know. But what I do know is we try to make sure she plays those pressure points and all the other points with the right mind set. That’s a mind-set that suits her well ... something that works for her. Basically she’s hungry to win. On the court she wants to dominate. So she knows it’s up to her, the match is in her hands if she goes aggressively for her shots, especially on the big points.

     Victoria’s biggest and most difficult victory at the Australian Open was her exciting 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 semifinal win over defending champion Kim Clijsters. Would you please analyze the key parts of that match and what it showed about Victoria’s progress.
As I said after that match, it was a very big victory for Vika. She faced the defending champion, but more important a great champion. Kim is a fantastic player who knows a match can be long and can turn matches around. She knows how to change the momentum and dynamic of a match. But after being outplayed completely in the second set, Vika kept her poise. She didn’t collapse, and instead reversed Kim’s momentum. So that win against a player of that caliber felt really good for Vika. It also showed us—if any proof was still needed—that Vika is part of an elite group of players who can deliver on a big stage and perform at their best during “money time.”

     Victoria protested to the umpire about spectators complaining about her shrieking during the Clijsters match. But when asked by reporters if she was annoyed by spectators mocking her shrieks and yelling “Turn down the volume,” she replied, “No, I prepare for that.” How does Victoria prepare for that?
You just accept it. You accept and expect that a few people will probably do that. It’s that simple. After all, players are not just athletes, they’re also entertainers. So if Vika entertains people who are watching her play, it’s fine, and she’s fine with that. She knows spectators react in many different ways. A sense of humor also helps. Sharapova is just like Vika, a terrific competitor who makes noise when she hits the ball. Before they played, I said, “It will be a musical final.”

     After beating Clijsters, Victoria talked about her growing maturity and improved temperament. “For sure, I had, how do you call that, ‘meltdowns’? For sure, you can see some on YouTube. But I grow as a player, I grow as a person, and I try to learn from my mistakes and make it better. So I’m proud of what I’m doing. I just want to keep going and keep raising that level.” How was Victoria able to start controlling her volatile emotions?
The answer is simple. As soon as Vika started to accept her emotions, what she was going through, and eventually identify them, then life for her started to be a little better and simpler. I think what’s difficult for any human being is to be in denial. You have to be true to yourself and admit you have a problem that hurts your performance. Then you can do something about it. So the answer is simple, but to take action is something more complicated. It doesn’t happen overnight. You got to have the strong desire to improve that part of yourself. It’s a process. It comes along with maturity. It’s wisdom. I agree with Plato. He said, “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”

     Victoria admitted she was “super nervous” before the Australian Open final. What were you thinking when she double-faulted twice and lost her serve in the opening game and then fell behind 2-0 when Sharapova easily held serve?
I was okay with that. It was nothing really out of the ordinary. I thought that might happen because it was her first Grand Slam final. But I was confident she would recover quickly, and so was Vika. And she did.

     About her 2-0 deficit against Sharapova, Victoria afterwards said: “There was so much at stake. I told myself there’s no way I’m going to lose, no way.” Is competitiveness one of Victoria’s biggest assets? Has that always been true?
Yes, for sure. I’ve always seen this trait with her. Competitiveness is hard to teach. A good motivation strategy is to challenge her, because then she gets so determined to pass that challenge. I don’t offer her money, like Sharapova’s father used to do to encourage her to go to the net, or any kind of rewards. I try to challenge Vika on and off the court. Of course, it is always related to her job. Sometimes I ask her to strike clean shots a certain amount of time in a row, aiming at a specific target. Or I make her play games, and I take one of her strokes away. Or I ask her to do things on and off the court that I know will take her out of her comfort zone, like taking her to a climbing wall. It has become a friendly game between us. I challenge her, and she challenges me as well ... fair enough.

     During the Australian Open Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin noted, “Azarenka’s footwork has improved between shots. Her split step isn’t as pronounced. She looks more athletic now.” Do you agree with that?
I agree because I know Vika is working a lot on her fitness. More and more she is having this athleticism fit into her game. We just have to do the best we can to build the right “engine” to help power her game. Her athleticism has definitely improved, but there is still room for improvement. So this is a process that continues.

     Other areas that have improved are her forehand, which occasionally broke down in the past, her defense and her shot selection. Would you please explain how they’ve improved.
As I said before, everything is related and interdependent. So if her athleticism is better, her movement gets better, and her court coverage and her defensive game will get better, too. Technically, Vika hits her forehand more cleanly now, for sure. Her game is getting more complete. But new things, improvements, can be fragile. So we hope to improve even more what we have already improved.

     In January, Victoria switched to the Wilson Juice 100 BLX racket. How has that racket helped her?
The Juice suits her aggressive playing style well, and it’s adding extra control as well. She just picked it up and felt good with it in 10 minutes or so.

     Petra Kvitova has beaten Victoria on three different surfaces the last four times they’ve played: on Wimbledon grass in 2010 and last year at Madrid on clay, Wimbledon again and the WTA Championships on indoor hard courts. Does Kvitova’s left-handed style pose a big problem for Victoria? What does Victoria have to do to turn this important rivalry around?
Whether the opponent is righty or lefty doesn’t matter. Your problem is always the same when you step on the court. You just want to be a bit better than your opponent on that day. You still want to impose your own game on her. Obviously Vika is playing a lot with me, and I’m a lefty, so that helps her to not be disoriented when she’s facing a lefty ... that’s all. But if Vika lost the last three times against Petra, it’s not because she’s lefty. She needs to focus on her game and keep improving all aspects of her repertoire. Then she will do better against all the top players. But if Vika plays against Kvitova a lot, that will be cool.

     What is your opinion of the WTA Tour’s rule that allows on-court coaching. And how much have your on-court visits helped Vika?
My view about the on-court coaching rule is simple. Even though I understand why this rule was created, as a coach, I believe that if I do a good job with my player, she doesn’t need me during matches. The best job I can do is to make sure my player will be autonomous on the court. The player will make her own decisions, and she will be responsible for them. My job is to give the athlete the right tools to achieve a high level of trust and confidence in herself. Also, my feeling is on-court coaching will increase the [illegal] off-court coaching during matches. I’m pretty fortunate because Vika hasn’t called me on the court for a long time. Of course, we might use on-court coaching from time to time. The rule is fair but not necessary.

     All-time great Martina Navratilova recently predicted: “I think we definitely have the possibility of a great rivalry between Azarenka and Kvitova. They are very talented players. They have really intense personalities. They’re very professional about how they go about it. If they stay healthy, that’s the rivalry to come.” What do you think?
About the rivalry, time will tell. Of course it’s nice to hear it coming from people like Navratilova. I hope she’s right, and I guess it’s a good feeling for those two players who have their names mentioned. But I don’t have a crystal ball.

     Victoria has defeated the resurgent Maria Sharapova decisively in three of their last four matches, highlighted by her trouncing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final. Why is Victoria so successful against Sharapova?
Honestly I don’t know why. I wish I could say Vika has found the recipe to beat Maria. That will make my life simpler and I would not have to worry when Vika faces again Maria, but this is not the case. They have a similar type of game, so it’s always tough for both to play against each other. They usually have close matches. And always I feel the result could go either way.

     In 2010 Victoria retired during matches six times. In 2011 she retired four times and withdrew once. What caused all these retirements? And will that problem end this year?
The ultimate goal for an athlete is to stay healthy as long as you possibly can. Avoiding major injuries is always a big concern. For an athlete your best sponsor or asset is your body. That’s what we always keep in mind with Vika—avoid these severe injuries. So, of course, my decision is never to take any chances. I insist that she listen to her body, if she’s injured, and we immediately take care of it. I would rather Vika miss just few days of playing than a few weeks or a few months. It’s my decision.

Meanwhile, Vika is doing a lot of prevention exercises and fitness training to build her body so she’s able to endure the amount of hours on the court. She works with Mike Guevarra. He’s an American trainer based at The Factory in Westlake, California.

If you’re able to train on a consistent basis, you’re moving forward, you’re moving in the right direction, and you’re going to improve. But with injuries, that’s impossible. Saying all this, I’m aware we will never bring down chances of injuries to zero.

     Karen Stroia, the WTA Tour’s leading trainer, says open-stance forehands, rather than the increasingly fast speed of the game, are causing the most injuries to the lower extremities. Do you agree? And what is injury-prone Victoria doing to help prevent injuries of all kinds?
Yes, I agree. It’s probably one of the main causes. As I said before, Vika is doing a lot of fitness to build her body so she can endure all the training and tournament competition. But on top of that, she tries to have the most professional approach. She pays a lot of attention to her recovery, which means the time off court. It means a lot of hours spent with her physio-osteopate, Jean-Pierre Bruyere, a French guy based near London. They do injury prevention stuff and a lot of treatment. She’s very careful about what she eats. She understands that her “resting time” is an important part of her training schedule as well.

     Like Novak Djokovic, Victoria has a lively, engaging personality. What is it like working with her on the court and spending time with her off the court?
It’s easy. She’s full of energy. She’s curious about everything—from cooking to photography to cars. She wants to learn about things that she finds interesting. She likes to meet people from different backgrounds. Vika has a real presence. By that I mean she has a strong character, but in a good way.

     Maria Sharapova said the locker room is her least favorite place, and Ana Ivanovic said, “I think the guys do hang out more—they spend more time together than the girls do. It might be hard for us to support each other because the tour can be very competitive.” But Victoria is highly competitive, and she hangs out with top 10 rivals like Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska. Would you please explain that.
There is really nothing extraordinary here. Vika and Caroline and Agnieszka get along well like other friends do. They actually spend more time together outside the tournament site. On the court they’re pretty competitive against each other, but when the job is done their friendship takes over. I guess competition and friendship are compatible overall.

     “I was young. I think I didn’t really handle that success too well. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I achieved so much.’ I didn’t really think that I needed to improve more … Maybe somewhere deep inside I was really satisfied with that. Now I have a different approach. I’m never satisfied. I’m very hungry and I want to be better and better every day I step on the court,” said Victoria, vowing not to repeat her mistakes back in 2009, when she won her first three WTA titles, including Miami and made the French Open and Wimbledon quarterfinals to enter the top 10 for the first time. Why do you predict she will handle success better now?
I can’t predict the future, but she’s matured a lot, so I’m pretty confident.

     No active player has won more than one French Open. In the absence of a clay court superstar, what do you think Victoria’s chances of winning the French Open are? And what are the keys to her winning on clay?
Yes, I believe she has a good chance to win on clay, or on any surface. Her game suits every surface. I’m not sure she’s the best clay court player out there, but like you said in your question, I’m not sure there is one either. I feel it’s pretty open on this surface. So, for sure, it’ll be very interesting at the French Open. The keys for Vika will be to be healthy, get a good preparation on the clay court tournaments and win as many matches she can before the French Open.

     With the London Olympics in July, plus three more Grand Slam tournaments, does Victoria have a real chance to win as many as three or even four of the five biggest events this year? Why, or why not?
Let’s be realistic, let’s keep our feet on the ground here. Just because Vika won the first Grand Slam [tournament] of the year, that doesn’t mean she’s going to win all of them. Of course not. It doesn’t work like that. Vika will go to every single tournament she’s entered to do her best, and that’s all we can ask for. Let’s keep working hard, let’s stay humble and we’ll see where it’ll take her.

     What gives you the most pleasure about coaching Vika?
What pleases me most is that Vika and I are on the same track. We both have the desire to be as good as we can be—she as a player and myself as a coach. She wants to always improve and feel she’s moving forward. I have to search for answers, solutions and directions to help her. I like that process, and Vika, with her ambition, gives me that opportunity. together. Since I was coaching another player then, I didn't really pay attention to Vika's game. I certainly wasn't thinking about being her coach or about what I could do to improve her game. I was looking at her game more from an opponent's point of view and thinking how Vera Zvonareva should play to beat Azarenka.

     Only when I started working with Vika did I really start to concentrate on her game and analyze how I could build up all facets of her game. Then I began to realize all the assets she has. She was already a very good player in the Top 10. My job was and still is to make Vika a complete player. My first impression was I liked her attitude. She had willpower, a burning desire to learn, and she was ready to do what it takes to become the best player she can be. I knew she could become a much better tennis athlete. So we've worked a lot on that as well.

     What did you learn from coaching former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva that has helped you coach Victoria?
     With Vera Zvonareva, I learned there is no good coach without a good player and a good student. Because Vera reached, and was playing at, the top level, I learned what the top level requires in order to get there and to stay at the top. It requires hard work, demanding much from yourself, professionalism, having an open mind about ways to improve, and staying humble.

     About her grueling training in the off-season, Victoria said, "Yeah, it's been really, really tough—a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, and a lot of blood." Specifically, what did she do?
     Basically during the off-season, Vika did what the other players do—a lot of tennis and fitness. At the end of last year's season, we sat down and targeted a few aspects of her game we thought were important to improve. We felt that our approach should go more into details and not big changes. She finished 2011 ranked No. 3 in the world, so we knew we didn't have to rethink or revolutionize her game. So we started focusing on fitness, movement, shot variety to create an all-around game, and a positive mind set and spirit. Everything is interdependent.

     After Victoria won the Australian Open, she credited you for helping take her to the top. "Sam, I feel like he was not pushing me but guiding me towards that mental approach, to that winning attitude," she said. "He helped me to find my way, not pushing his way. So I think I owe him a lot for that, for educating me. I think it's important, especially for the young players, to have that education. That you have to learn how to do it yourself, because in the end of the day you're the one who's holding the racquet. Nobody else is going to do that for you." Specifically, how did you educate and guide Victoria?
     Once again there is no magical potion. I feel that Vika is the only one of the two of us who can and actually be allowed to talk about this. All I can say is that it's very important that the player knows herself as much as she possibly can. It's my job to understand that person as much as I possibly can. So communication and my being a good listener are key factors.

     During the fortnight Azarenka displayed improved volleying, especially during her 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska when she won 20 of 25 points (80%) at net, including nine of nine in the deciding set. Against defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semis, she grabbed 18 of 23 points (78%) at net. Would you please talk about this part of her game.
    As everyone knows, Vika has a very aggressive game, especially her groundstrokes, but also increasingly her game in the forecourt. Because her net game is excellent, we started to think how to emphasize that aspect of her game to apply more pressure on her opponents from every part of the court.

     One day she was practicing with John McEnroe, one of the greatest volleyers in history. Then everyone took a break and all of us talked about the game. Of course, John expressed his opinions, and he gave me ideas about how I can help Vika create those offensive situations where Vika can attack high balls, especially floating balls, to finish points at net. The other keys are to recognize these situations early, react quickly and sprint forward so she positions herself much closer to the net.

     That was a starting point to her improved net game which has become a major part of her success. Now she is becoming a more complete player.

     Victoria converted 10 of 17 break points (58%) against Radwanska and 5 of 7 break points (71%) against Sharapova. Why is Victoria playing the big, pressure points better than ever?
     Honestly I don't know. But what I do know is we try to make sure she plays those pressure points and all the other points with the right mind set. That's a mind-set that suits her well ... something that works for her. Basically she's hungry to win. On the court she wants to dominate. So she knows it's up to her, the match is in her hands if she goes aggressively for her shots, especially on the big points.

     Victoria's biggest and most difficult victory at the Australian Open was her exciting 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 semifinal win over defending champion Kim Clijsters. Would you please analyze the key parts of that match and what it showed about Victoria's progress.
     As I said after that match, it was a very big victory for Vika. She faced the defending champion, but more important a great champion. Kim is a fantastic player who knows a match can be long and can turn matches around. She knows how to change the momentum and dynamic of a match. But after being outplayed completely in the second set, Vika kept her poise. She didn't collapse, and instead reversed Kim's momentum. So that win against a player of that caliber felt really good for Vika. It also showed us—if any proof was still needed—that Vika is part of an elite group of players who can deliver on a big stage and perform at their best during "money time."

     Victoria protested to the umpire about spectators complaining about her shrieking during the Clijsters match. But when asked by reporters if she was annoyed by spectators mocking her shrieks and yelling "Turn down the volume," she replied, "No, I prepare for that." How does Victoria prepare for that?
     You just accept it. You accept and expect that a few people will probably do that. It's that simple. After all, players are not just athletes, they're also entertainers. So if Vika entertains people who are watching her play, it's fine, and she's fine with that. She knows spectators react in many different ways. A sense of humor also helps. Sharapova is just like Vika, a terrific competitor who makes noise when she hits the ball. Before they played, I said, "It will be a musical final."

     After beating Clijsters, Victoria talked about her growing maturity and improved temperament. "For sure, I had, how do you call that, 'meltdowns'? For sure, you can see some on YouTube. But I grow as a player, I grow as a person, and I try to learn from my mistakes and make it better. So I'm proud of what I'm doing. I just want to keep going and keep raising that level."  How was Victoria able to start controlling her volatile emotions?
     The answer is simple. As soon as Vika started to accept her emotions, what she was going through, and eventually identify them, then life for her started to be a little better and simpler. I think what's difficult for any human being is to be in denial. You have to be true to yourself and admit you have a problem that hurts your performance. Then you can do something about it. So the answer is simple, but to take action is something more complicated. It doesn't happen overnight. You got to have the strong desire to improve that part of yourself. It's a process. It comes along with maturity. It's wisdom. I agree with Plato. He said, "Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow."

     Victoria admitted she was "super nervous" before the Australian Open final. What were you thinking when she double-faulted twice and lost her serve in the opening game and then fell behind 2-0 when Sharapova easily held serve?
     I was okay with that. It was nothing really out of the ordinary. I thought that might happen because it was her first Grand Slam final. But I was confident she would recover quickly, and so was Vika. And she did.

     About her 2-0 deficit against Sharapova, Victoria afterwards said: "There was so much at stake. I told myself there's no way I'm going to lose, no way." Is competitiveness one of Victoria's biggest assets? Has that always been true?     
    Yes, for sure. I've always seen this trait with her. Competitiveness is hard to teach. A good motivation strategy is to challenge her, because then she gets so determined to pass that challenge. I don't offer her money, like Sharapova's father used to do to encourage her to go to the net, or any kind of rewards. I try to challenge Vika on and off the court. Of course, it is always related to her job. Sometimes I ask her to strike clean shots a certain amount of time in a row, aiming at a specific target. Or I make her play games, and I take one of her strokes away. Or I ask her to do things on and off the court that I know will take her out of her comfort zone, like taking her to a climbing wall. It has become a friendly game between us. I challenge her, and she challenges me as well ... fair enough.

     During the Australian Open Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin noted, "Azarenka's footwork has improved between shots. Her split step isn't as pronounced. She looks more athletic now." Do you agree with that?
     I agree because I know Vika is working a lot on her fitness. More and more she is having this athleticism fit into her game. We just have to do the best we can to build the right "engine" to help power her game. Her athleticism has definitely improved, but there is still room for improvement. So this is a process that continues.

    Other areas that have improved are her forehand, which occasionally broke down in the past, her defense and her shot selection. Would you please explain how they've improved.    
     As I said before, everything is related and interdependent. So if her athleticism is better, her movement gets better, and her court coverage and her defensive game will get better, too. Technically, Vika hits her forehand more cleanly now, for sure. Her game is getting more complete. But new things, improvements, can be fragile. So we hope to improve even more what we have already improved.

     In January, Victoria switched to the Wilson Juice 100 BLX racket. How has that racket helped her?
     The Juice suits her aggressive playing style well, and it's adding extra control as well. She just picked it up and felt good with it in 10 minutes or so.

     Petra Kvitova has beaten Victoria on three different surfaces the last four times they've played: on Wimbledon grass in 2010 and last year at Madrid on clay, Wimbledon again and the WTA Championships on indoor hard courts. Does Kvitova's left-handed style pose a big problem for Victoria? What does Victoria have to do to turn this important rivalry around?
     Whether the opponent is righty or lefty doesn't matter. Your problem is always the same when you step on the court. You just want to be a bit better than your opponent on that day. You still want to impose your own game on her. Obviously Vika is playing a lot with me, and I'm a lefty, so that helps her to not be disoriented when she's facing a lefty ... that's all. But if Vika lost the last three times against Petra, it's not because she's lefty. She needs to focus on her game and keep improving all aspects of her repertoire. Then she will do better against all the top players. But if Vika plays against Kvitova a lot, that will be cool.

     What is your opinion of the WTA Tour's rule that allows on-court coaching. And how much have your on-court visits helped Vika?
      My view about the on-court coaching rule is simple. Even though I understand why this rule was created, as a coach, I believe that if I do a good job with my player, she doesn't need me during matches. The best job I can do is to make sure my player will be autonomous on the court. The player will make her own decisions, and she will be responsible for them. My job is to give the athlete the right tools to achieve a high level of trust and confidence in herself. Also, my feeling is on-court coaching will increase the [illegal] off-court coaching during matches. I'm pretty fortunate because Vika hasn't called me on the court for a long time. Of course, we might use on-court coaching from time to time. The rule is fair but not necessary.

     All-time great Martina Navratilova recently predicted: "I think we definitely have the possibility of a great rivalry between Azarenka and Kvitova. They are very talented players. They have really intense personalities. They're very professional about how they go about it. If they stay healthy, that's the rivalry to come." What do you think?
     About the rivalry, time will tell. Of course it's nice to hear it coming from people like Navratilova. I hope she's right, and I guess it's a good feeling for those two players who have their names mentioned. But I don't have a crystal ball.

     Victoria has defeated the resurgent Maria Sharapova decisively in three of their last four matches, highlighted by her trouncing Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final. Why is Victoria so successful against Sharapova?
     Honestly I don't know why. I wish I could say Vika has found the recipe to beat Maria. That will make my life simpler and I would not have to worry when Vika faces again Maria, but this is not the case. They have a similar type of game, so it's always tough for both to play against each other. They usually have close matches. And always I feel the result could go either way.

     In 2010 Victoria retired during matches six times. In 2011 she retired four times and withdrew once. What caused all these retirements? And will that problem end this year?
     The ultimate goal for an athlete is to stay healthy as long as you possibly can. Avoiding major injuries is always a big concern. For an athlete your best sponsor or asset is your body. That's what we always keep in mind with Vika—avoid these severe injuries. So, of course, my decision is never to take any chances. I insist that she listen to her body, if she's injured, and we immediately take care of it. I would rather Vika miss just few days of playing than a few weeks or a few months. It's my decision.
     Meanwhile, Vika is doing a lot of prevention exercises and fitness training to build her body so she's able to endure the amount of hours on the court. She works with Mike Guevarra. He's an American trainer based at The Factory in Westlake, California.

     If you're able to train on a consistent basis, you're moving forward, you're moving in the right direction, and you're going to improve. But with injuries, that's impossible. Saying all this, I'm aware we will never bring down chances of injuries to zero.

     Karen Stroia, the WTA Tour's leading trainer, says open-stance forehands, rather than the increasingly fast speed of the game, are causing the most injuries to the lower extremities. Do you agree? And what is injury-prone Victoria doing to help prevent injuries of all kinds?
     Yes, I agree. It's probably one of the main causes. As I said before, Vika is doing a lot of fitness to build her body so she can endure all the training and tournament competition. But on top of that, she tries to have the most professional approach. She pays a lot of attention to her recovery, which means the time off court. It means a lot of hours spent with her physio-osteopate, Jean-Pierre Bruyere, a French guy based near London. They do injury prevention stuff and a lot of treatment. She's very careful about what she eats. She understands that her "resting time" is an important part of her training schedule as well.

     Like Novak Djokovic, Victoria has a lively, engaging personality. What is it like working with her on the court and spending time with her off the court?
     It's easy. She's full of energy. She's curious about everything—from cooking to photography to cars. She wants to learn about things that she finds interesting. She likes to meet people from different backgrounds. Vika has a real presence. By that I mean she has a strong character, but in a good way.
 
     Maria Sharapova said the locker room is her least favorite place, and Ana Ivanovic said, "I think the guys do hang out more—they spend more time together than the girls do. It might be hard for us to support each other because the tour can be very competitive." But Victoria is highly competitive, and she hangs out with top 10 rivals like Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska. Would you please explain that.
     There is really nothing extraordinary here. Vika and Caroline and Agnieszka get along well like other friends do. They actually spend more time together outside the tournament site. On the court they're pretty competitive against each other, but when the job is done their friendship takes over. I guess competition and friendship are compatible overall.

     "I was young. I think I didn't really handle that success too well. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I achieved so much.' I didn't really think that I needed to improve more … Maybe somewhere deep inside I was really satisfied with that. Now I have a different approach. I'm never satisfied. I'm very hungry and I want to be better and better every day I step on the court," said Victoria, vowing not to repeat her mistakes back in 2009, when she won her first three WTA titles, including Miami and made the French Open and Wimbledon quarterfinals to enter the top 10 for the first time. Why do you predict she will handle success better now?
     I can't predict the future, but she's matured a lot, so I'm pretty confident.

     No active player has won more than one French Open. In the absence of a clay court superstar, what do you think Victoria's chances of winning the French Open are? And what are the keys to her winning on clay?
     Yes, I believe she has a good chance to win on clay, or on any surface. Her game suits every surface. I'm not sure she's the best clay court player out there, but like you said in your question, I'm not sure there is one either. I feel it's pretty open on this surface. So, for sure, it'll be very interesting at the French Open.

     The keys for Vika will be to be healthy, get a good preparation on the clay court tournaments and win as many matches she can before the French Open.

     With the London Olympics in July, plus three more Grand Slam tournaments, does Victoria have a real chance to win as many as three or even four of the five biggest events this year? Why, or why not?
     Let's be realistic, let's keep our feet on the ground here. Just because Vika won the first Grand Slam [tournament] of the year, that doesn't mean she's going to win  all of them. Of course not. It doesn't work like that.

     Vika will go to every single tournament she's entered to do her best, and that's all we can ask for. Let's keep working hard, let's stay humble and we'll see where it'll take her.

     What gives you the most pleasure about coaching Vika?
     What pleases me most is that Vika and I are on the same track. We both have the desire to be as good as we can be—she as a player and myself as a coach. She wants to always improve and feel she's moving forward. I have to search for answers, solutions and directions to help her. I like that process, and Vika, with her ambition, gives me that opportunity.

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