MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka is packing her bags and leaving the Australian Open far earlier than years past, but the two-time former champion sure had fun while she was here.
For the Belarussian, who is putting forth a more carefree image these days, this might be just as important as winning.
Unseeded after an injury-marred season, Azarenka had the toughest draw of any of the top female contenders at Melbourne Park, yet she moved through three rounds with ease, not dropping a set to Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki or Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.
On Monday, though, her run came to an end against 2014 finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, in a match filled with extended rallies, momentum shifts and impressive shot-making. The two women combined for 76 winners.
It was Azarenka’s earliest exit from the Australian Open since 2011, but rather than be disappointed, she looked at the upside.
“I take it as progress. I think there are a lot of the positive things to take from here,” she said. “Overall, I can be pretty happy.”
It’s been her mantra for the whole tournament. In years past, Azarenka hasn’t seemed to fully enjoy her time at the Australian Open, despite her success. This year felt different — she seemed to buy into the tournament’s informal “Happy Slam” nickname.
Forget the twirls — Azarenka put on impromptu dance performances on the court after her matches. She playfully scolded the crowds for calling her “Vicky” instead of “Vika” or “Victoria” when they cheered her on. And she flirted with Australian teen sensation Nick Kyrgios on Twitter — she asked how she could learn to serve as big as him, and he responded, “private lessons, of course!!”
Even her encounters with the media, which used to cause her to bristle in the past, were lighthearted. The topic of conversation routinely veered from tennis to other less weighty subjects, such as Vegemite and her multi-colored leggings.
“There’s not many players who can pull that off,” she said after her third-round win over Zahlavova Strycova as she raised her leg to show off her white, purple and green leggings. “What do you think about them?”
Azarenka also opened up about the pressures she felt in the past to publicly present a more packaged, less authentic version of herself.
This came to a head at the Australian Open two years ago when she struggled to explain herself and looked overwhelmed when repeatedly questioned about a medical time-out she took at a critical time in her semifinal against Stephens. The controversy hung over her final against Li Na, with some in the crowd booing her and mimicking her high-pitched grunting sounds.
Azarenka maintains she was legitimately hurt and felt she was unfairly criticized at the time.
Now, she says, she has learned the importance of being true to herself, even if not everybody likes her.
“I don’t think I’ve changed as a person. I think I grew as a person. I think I’m able to speak my thoughts more freely, which before I think I was holding back and really was trying to fit into some kind of image that a lot of people, a lot of players do,” she said.
“I’m just being me. I say what I want to say. I laugh when I want to laugh. I play how I want to play. I grunt when I want to grunt.”