Victoria Azarenka, the No. 1 female tennis player in the world and winner of the most recent major tournament, the Australian Open, is being gentle with a pupil.
She is filming a promotional spot last week at the Mulholland Tennis Club and good-naturedly giving a simple tennis lesson to a novice.
“Bend your arm,” Azarenka says. “Knees low. Reach for it.”
As tennis balls spray everywhere, Azarenka fetches them, laughing. “Yes, I am the real coach now. I’m picking up the balls.”
This is not the Azarenka tennis fans thought they knew over the first six years of her career. That Azarenka was emotional and sometimes self-destructive during matches. She was a yeller, a shouter and pouter, a racket-thrower. But, also, the Belarusian clearly had talent.
The crackling sound of her racket hitting the tennis ball grabs attention, and her braided blond ponytail and long legs present an appealing figure. But her demeanor would become unpleasant, and even as she rose up the rankings from 30th at the end of 2007 to 10th in 2010 to No. 3 at the end of last year and now, for the first time, No. 1, Azarenka has been received with lukewarm enthusiasm.
But maybe not anymore.
She has been practicing at Indian Wells this week in preparation for the BNP Paribas Open, which begins main-draw play Wednesday for the women and Thursday for the men. And where Azarenka has worked out, crowds have followed.
“It’s a little different now,” she said. “I think people are knowing me a little better after Australia. They have met me.”
In person Azarenka is charming.
She is willing to play tour guide for her native country, giving enthusiastic descriptions of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Minsk — “It’s famous around the world; its architecture is amazing,” she said — of the natural beauty of Belarus’ lakes and forests, and of something even more basic. “Our country is so clean and neat and tidy,” she said. “You should come.”
Azarenka, 22, has formed rewarding partnerships with a multicultural team that has seemed to bring her the stability she needs off the court and the ability to have some fun too.
Her coach for the last two years is Frenchman Sam Sumyk and her agent is Meilen Tu, a former WTA Tour pro from Tarzana who now works for the sports agency Lagardere. Her boyfriend, Sergei Bubka Jr., is a Ukrainian tennis player and the son of former pole vault great Sergei Bubka.
Along with French trainer Jean-Pierre Bruyere, there will be five in a rented home in Indian Wells as long as Azarenka is in the main draw. The field includes the woman she supplanted as No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki (now ranked fourth); the player she beat in the Australian Open final, No. 2 Maria Sharapova; and the winners of last year’s final two major tournaments, No. 3 Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon) and No. 6 Samantha Stosur.
In the middle of speaking about what becoming No. 1 means — she isn’t sure yet — she turned to Tu and said, “Maybe we should get a ping-pong table for the backyard in Indian Wells. I’ll beat all of you.”
“That’s so Vika,” Tu said, using Azarenka’s nickname. “She’s always looking for other stuff to do. And she always wants to win.”
Sumyk said Azarenka’s 6-3, 6-0 win over Sharapova in the Australian final Jan. 29 in Melbourne has given her a new sense of calm confidence. After the final ball was struck, Azarenka shouted, “What happened?” before she fell to the ground.
“Until you actually do it,” said Sumyk, who used to coach another top player, current No. 9 Vera Zvonareva of Russia, “I don’t think you believe you deserve it, whether that’s to be No. 1 or to win a major.
“When you finally do it, you receive almost like an injection of inner confidence. Of course, now is that other question. Which one is hardest, to become No. 1 or to stay there? It’s new for Vika, it’s new for me. So we have no idea. Only idea we have is that it is hard both ways.”
Azarenka, who speaks fluent English learned, she said, mostly from watching episodes of the sitcom “Friends,” is also noticed and much criticized for her over-the-top grunting during matches.
When she was giving her little promotional lesson, she didn’t make a peep while hitting the ball. When she is playing for real, though, Azarenka’s many-toned yelps and howls cause fans to send letters to the WTA asking for the noise to be ruled illegal.
Those complaints don’t bother Azarenka. “I’ve done it since I was a little kid. I needed the extra power it gives. The complaints don’t really bother me. We do what we want to do. Some of the men grunt too,” she said, pointing out that Rafael Nadal uses his outdoor voice especially in matches that are particularly competitive and meaningful.
Tu is 34 and beat Martina Hingis in 1994 to win the U.S. Open junior title. She first met Azarenka at a challenger event in Tucson six years ago when she was still playing. Tu said she enjoys more than a professional relationship with Azarenka. “I like hanging out with her,” Tu said. “She’s fun and honest, and that’s important. There are a lot of people out here who aren’t honest.”
Azarenka nodded. “I’m always honest,” she said. And, honestly, she said, “I think I deserve to be No. 1 now. I earned it, right?”