Azarenka: Tennis hunger comes from childhood in Belarus

AP Photo

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Pressure is merely a matter of perspective for Victoria Azarenka, who can recall days when she was worried as much about going hungry as she did about her next match.

The two-time Australian Open champion is emerging as a favorite for the title, growing in confidence following two injury-interrupted seasons as she tallies victories and while leading contenders are making early-round exits to open up the draw.

Azarenka dropped her opening service game without winning a point on Saturday, but recovered quickly to beat Japanese qualifier Naomi Osaka 6-1, 6-1 win in 56 minutes. No. 2 Simona Halep went out in the first round, while No. 3 Garbine Muguruza lost in the third round in the match before 14th-seeded Azarenka went on court.

Asked about the apparent change in her fortunes and her frame of mind, and to contrast it with the pressure on other leading rivals, Azarenka opened up about what it has taken to develop from being a promising child player in Belarus to a contender for Grand Slam titles.

First of all, merely getting an opportunity came only from beating everyone else.

“If you’re not the best, you don’t get sponsored at all,” she said, delving back into her past. “So that was pretty rough.”

She remembered one day, on the junior circuit, which “still affects me every time.”

During a nine-week stint, sometimes playing two matches a day, she said, if she missed the scheduled times when food was provided, she went hungry.

“I had no money. I didn’t get to eat,” she said. “So that was pressure, you know, to survive. That was survival, really. So, pressure right now is go out there and face a big opponent? OK, but when you’re like hungry and you’ve got to go play and you have absolutely nothing, that’s big pressure.”

Asked if there was some kind of advantage growing up that way, she said, “That’s just what makes you tough – I wouldn’t call it an advantage, because it never feels like it, for sure.”

But it has shaped her as a person and as a competitor.

At another point during Azarenka’s unusually long and self-analytical news conference, she talked about how all players react differently to pressure. For her, it’s a motivating force.

“I love it. I embrace it,” Azarenka said. “Pressure for me, I think it’s part of where I came from. I always had pressure. I had one shot to get out of where I am, so that was way more pressure than I’m having pressure right now.”

Azarenka will next play No. 48-ranked Barbora Strycova, who upset 2015 Wimbledon finalist Muguruza 6-3, 6-2.

Azarenka is one of three Australian Open champions remaining – six-time winner Serena Williams and 2008 winner Maria Sharapova are on the other half of the draw and could meet in the quarterfinals.

Nishioka beats Shapovalov to win Korean Open

2022 US Open - Day 1
Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea – Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka claimed his second career title after beating fourth seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada 6-4, 7-6 (5) to win the Korean Open.

The 27-year-old Japanese, who beat top seed and world No.2 Casper Ruud in the quarterfinals, was impressive in defense and his counter-punching style eventually wore down his higher ranked opponent in just under two hours at the Seoul Olympic Park Tennis Center.

The unseeded Nishioka, appearing in his second championship match this year after reaching the Washington final in August, started the brighter and found his rhythm early to claim the first set.

The second set saw momentum change as Shapavolov found his range from the backcourt to take a 3-1 lead. But Nishioka rallied to take the set into a tiebreak where he held firm to win his first tournament since his maiden title at the Shenzen Open in 2018 – where he also beat Shapovalov in their only previous meeting.

The ATP Tour returned to Seoul for the first time since 1996 after the city was awarded a single-year license to stage the Korean Open.

Mayar Sherif becomes first Egyptian to win WTA Tour event

Getty Images

PARMA, Italy — Mayar Sherif became the first Egyptian to win a WTA Tour event by beating top-seeded Maria Sakkari 7-5, 6-3 at the Parma Ladies Open.

Besides earning her first career title, Sherif also notched her first win over a top-10 opponent.

Along with Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals this year, Sherif is raising the profile of tennis in North Africa.

The 74th-ranked Sherif actually had to win two matches on Saturday, first overcoming sixth-seeded Ana Bogdan 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the semifinals, which were postponed a day due to rain.

The seventh-ranked Sakkari beat Danka Kovinic 7-5, 6-2 in her semifinal earlier Saturday.