MELBOURNE, Australia -- She was oblivious to it all. To the birds chirping above her. The ball boys carrying flags as they walked by her. The caterers wheeling a cart. Half an hour before the women's final of the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka stood alone in the tunnels of Rod Laver Arena. She was in her "Vika shell," as she's called it, alone with her thoughts.
It had been a few days since she'd had much solitude. But now, finally, she was gathering herself. She could barely nod when her coach and trainer spoke to her. With a hooded sweatshirt shrouding her face and ear buds firmly in place, she stretched her legs and rolled her head and jumped up and down. She looked less like a tennis player than a fighter preparing for battle. Which, in a sense, she was.
When she entered the arena, she stayed in her personal isolation chamber for the next three hours. You could hardly have fashioned a stranger match, one loaded with more opportunity to lose focus. Let us count the ways. With her title defense and No.1 ranking on the line, Azarenka was the clear-cut favorite. An overwhelmingly partisan crowd, though, cheered vocally the opponent, China's Li Na, who won the first set.
"China national flag everywhere," Li said. "I was, 'Oh, looks like China Open.'"