Azarenka: Tennis hunger comes from childhood in Belarus

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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.

Gael Monfils withdraws from French Open with wrist injury

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

PARIS — A thrilling five-set victory took a toll on Gael Monfils, whose withdrawal from the French Open handed No. 6 Holger Rune a walkover to the third round.

The 36-year-old Frenchman said he has a strained left wrist and can’t continue.

He battled Sebastian Baez for nearly four hours on Court Philippe Chatrier before beating the Argentine 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 in a first-round match that ended at 12:18 a.m. local time.

The victory was Monfils’ first at tour level this year, as the veteran was coming back from heel surgery.

“Actually, physically, I’m quite fine. But I had the problem with my wrist that I cannot solve,” he said. “The doctor say was not good to play with that type of injury. Yesterday was actually very risky, and then today definitely say I should stop.”

Monfils reached the semifinals at the French Open in 2008 and made it to the quarterfinals on three other occasions.

Mikael Ymer fined about $40K after default for hitting umpire stand with racket

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

PARIS — Swedish tennis player Mikael Ymer was docked about $40,000 after being disqualified for smashing his racket against the umpire’s chair at a tournament the week before he competed at the French Open.

An ATP Tour spokesman said Ymer forfeited about $10,500 in prize money and 20 rankings he earned for reaching the second round of the Lyon Open. Ymer also was handed an on-site fine of about $29,000.

The spokesman said the ATP Fines Committee will conduct a review of what happened to determine whether any additional penalties are warranted.

The 56th-ranked Ymer, who is 24 and owns a victory over current No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, was defaulted in Lyon for an outburst late in the first set against French teenager Arthur Fils last week.

Ymer was upset that the chair umpire would not check a ball mark after a shot by Fils landed near a line. As the players went to the sideline for the ensuing changeover, Ymer smacked the base of the umpire’s stand with his racket twice – destroying his equipment and damaging the chair.

That led to Ymer’s disqualification, making Fils the winner of the match.

After his 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 loss to 17th-seeded Lorenzo Musetti in the first round at Roland Garros, Ymer was asked whether he wanted to explain why he reacted the way he did in Lyon.

“With all due respect, I think it’s pretty clear from the video what caused it and why I reacted the way I reacted. Not justifying it at all, of course,” Ymer replied. “But for me to sit here and to explain? I think it’s pretty clear what led me to that place. I think that’s pretty clear in the video.”