Victoria Azarenka’s Injury Problem

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Victoria Azarenka started the year strongly. She won her second Australian Open in January and beat Serena Williams to win the Premier 5 event in Doha. After coming so close to the US Open trophy in 2012, it seemed that she was finally ready to step up and challenge the American for the biggest prizes in the sport, providing the WTA with a compelling, much-needed rivalry in the process.

That hasn’t happened. Not because Azarenka has suffered a loss of form or a crisis in confidence, but because she has been missing in action for much of the year. The world number two has pulled out of seven tournaments in 2013, either during the event itself or prior to travelling there. Injuries are a reality of professional tennis, especially for players who win frequently and put their bodies under excess strain. But the extent to which Azarenka’s body has let her down suggests that she is either incredibly unlucky, or simply not strong enough to cope with the rigours of the tour.

The more Azarenka has achieved over recent years, the more often she has been stuck down. At the 2009 Australian Open, she was forced to retire with heat stress after winning the opening set of her fourth round match with Serena. She pulled out of Birmingham that summer, citing a hip injury, and withdrew from an event in Moscow at the end of the season.

In early 2010, illness forced her out of an exhibition in Hong Kong. In April of that year, she retired from back-to-back tournaments in Marbella and Charleston; a groin injury led to a default in Madrid a few weeks later. Although she managed to complete all of her matches in Eastbourne and at Wimbledon, she suffered from ailments throughout. After powering to the title in Stanford, she announced that a shoulder injury would keep her from competing in Carlsbad the very next week. A fortnight later, she retired from a match in Montreal after losing the first set, but the most dramatic moment came in New York: in the second round of the US Open, she collapsed on court, the result of a concussion suffered during a pre-match sprint exercise. Azarenka played four tournaments in the autumn and remained relatively healthy, her sole retirement coming in Beijing.

But the pullouts piled up again in 2011: a left leg injury was the cause in Indian Wells, a shoulder injury in Stuttgart, an elbow injury in Rome. Another groin injury derailed her Eastbourne campaign, and despite playing all of her singles matches in Toronto, a hand injury forced her out of the doubles event there and the subsequent tournament in Cincinnati. In October, she won her opening match in Beijing before pulling out with a right foot strain.

Azarenka worked hard on her fitness during the 2011 off-season, and began 2012 with a bang. A 26-match winning streak brought her four tournament titles including the Australian Open, and she rose to the top of the rankings for the first time. Her only withdrawals in the first few months of the year were from a Fed Cup meeting with the USA and the Premier tournament in Dubai. By the spring, however, the effort of winning so much began to take its toll. She was troubled by a wrist injury in Stuttgart, and withdrew from Rome citing a right shoulder strain. After winning the bronze medal at the London Olympics, she pulled out midway through her first match in Montreal. Dizziness forced her out before the quarter-finals in Tokyo a couple of months later, but although won two of her final three tournaments of the year, fatigue and stiffness hampered her performance at the end-of-year championships in Istanbul.

Which brings us back to 2013. An unfortunate reaction to a bad pedicure halted her progress in Brisbane, and even though she triumphed in Melbourne, she had to take a medical timeout in the semi-finals to deal with breathing difficulties. A fragile heel ruled her out of Dubai, and a right ankle injury led to a quarter-final default in Indian Wells and withdrawals from Miami and Monterey. Then came Wimbledon, and the agonising knee injury she suffered during her first round match. She returned to action in Carlsbad last week, but pulled out of Toronto at the last moment, apparently still short of full fitness.

That exhaustive – and exhausting – recount shows that Azarenka has suffered from more illnesses, injuries and ailments that most players endure in their entire career. She is only 24. But what is curious about Azarenka’s recent history of tournament withdrawals is that they haven’t stopped her from reaching the pinnacle of the women’s game. Other players who spend so much time on the sidelines find it difficult to build momentum once they return – their results dip, their rankings tumble and they take a long time to rediscover their best form. Azarenka, despite sitting out so many events, has managed to top the rankings, win two Grand Slams and earn a reputation as one of the toughest players on tour.

This has led some to question the veracity of her injury claims. The sceptics say that Azarenka is a drama queen, liable to abandon a tournament at the merest hint of a niggle, especially when she is due to face a tough opponent. The last-minute withdrawals from the Fed Cup in 2012 and Brisbane 2013 (she was set to play Serena in both) lend weight to this argument.

Those more willing to give Azarenka the benefit of the doubt say that she is just more prone to precaution than her peers. Many players have lived to regret competing while injured: Dinara Safina, for example, had to retire prematurely after she forced her troublesome back through too many matches; and one could even argue that Rafael Nadal’s heavy schedule in the past has exacerbated his chronic knee tendonitis. Isn’t Azarenka, by listening to her body and refusing to subject it to unnecessary stress, simply prioritising her health and longevity? After all, Serena Williams played a notoriously slight schedule for much of the last decade, and is the best player in the world at 31 years of age.

Yet even if Azarenka’s raft of withdrawals are the result of smart safeguarding, they remain problematic from a PR perspective. As well as alienating many fans, her behaviour has drawn the ire of some of her rivals. Agnieszka Radwanska accused her of exaggerating an ankle injury in Doha last year, saying it wasn’t “a great image for women’s tennis,” and Sharapova made a mocking reference to Azarenka’s “extremely injured” wrist when she beat her in the 2012 Stuttgart final. The response to her medical timeout during the Australian Open semi-final this year was particularly hostile.

But if Azarenka really is more sensitive than most to the relentless grind of the tour, we can expect the pre-and mid-tournament withdrawals to continue. They won’t do her popularity any favours, and they won’t endear her to her peers, but given her champion’s mentality – something there can be no doubt about – it seems unlikely that this will bother her. The Belarusian has got to the top by doing things her way: it should come as no surprise that she places a higher premium on self-preservation than she does on honouring WTA commitments.

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