‘Hope French Open focuses on protecting players rather than making money’

Victoria Azarenka is eager to see how French Open will handle 'bubble life'

Victoria Azarenka

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Victoria Azarenka thrived in the ‘bubble’ in New York. The 31-year-old Belarussian won the Western & Southern Open and made her first Grand Slam final in seven years at the US Open.

She will now travel to Europe for the clay season, beginning with next week’s Italian Open and then the French Open, which starts on September 27.

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“It will be very interesting for me to see how French Open is going to handle the situation with the bubble life, with the COVID now,” she said after her 6-1, 3-6, 3-6 defeat to Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s US Open final.

“I hope they will do a good job of protecting the players first rather than making money. So we’ll see.”

While the US Open was played behind closed doors due to the pandemic, the French Open organisers have said they will allow up to 60 per cent of capacity crowds at the rescheduled Grand Slam event this year.

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“I’m kind of excited for that, to play on clay,” said Azarenka, who has been drawn to play against Venus Williams in the opening round in Rome.

“I haven’t had the best relationship with clay seasons for years. Last year I kind of had a lot of fun. So I’m looking forward to just slide a little more.”

Thoughts of quitting

The Belarussian’s run in New York has been one of the highlights of the season so far. It is the deepest she has gone in a Grand Slam since returning to the tour after giving birth to son Leo late in 2016.

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Azarenka was also caught in a custody battle for her son with her former partner, Billy McLeague, in 2017 and said that her personal situation almost made her quit tennis.

“I will say that I was ready to stop definitely,” she said.

“I haven’t touched my racquet for five months. I was really not planning on coming to play until I had my personal issues resolved. So I never really made the final decision because I was going to do that after. So it was pretty close. But what kept me in the game is my desire to go after what I want.”

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The 31-year-old, who last played a Grand Slam final in 2013, was one of the nine ‘supermoms’ in the US Open singles draw this year. And for the first time three mothers – Serena Williams, Tsvetana Pironkova and Azarenka –made it to the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam competition.

Emotional health

While the Belarussian believes that her journey has given her more perspective, she said athletes, should be helped emotionally from early on so that their sport doesn’t become their only identity.

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“I feel like a lot of young players, especially girls, are very vulnerable to be manipulated, to be shifted in certain directions. It’s really unfortunate to see this happen,” said Azarenka, who won her first major at the 2012 Australian Open at the age of 23.

“It’s not easy when you’re young and you have to figure out under a lot of pressure how to navigate in a different world, especially when you have a lot of success.

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“I hope there will be a little bit more attention paid to, I wouldn’t necessarily talk about mental health, it’s just general happiness of players.

“We see sometimes players only have identification of themselves as a tennis player, then they’re kind of lost in life, what to do after their careers. I’m not talking just in tennis. I think in sport in general.”