Doha: When top-ranked Victoria Azarenka thinks about her newfound success, she might want to thank Daniela Hantuchova.
She was beaten in the first round by the Slovakian at the Qatar Open a year ago, causing a crisis of confidence in the 22-year-old Belarusian. She rushed home, ready to tell her family that she wanted to quit the sport she had grown to despise.
"It was just not fun for me to do, because I'm the type of player that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of desire," Azarenka said.
Rather than quitting the game a year ago, Azarenka took a brief break and it did her wonders.
"Every time I was stepping on the court, it was like a misery to me, so I just told my mom, I don't want to play anymore because it's not fun. She's like, 'You know what? I think maybe you're tired, you're burned out. Just come home and see what happens.'"
Rather than quitting, Azarenka took a brief break and it did her wonders.
She had best season in 2011, winning 55 of 72 matches to finish the year at No. 3. She returned in 2012, winning the Australian Open and becoming No. 1 for the first time in her career. Ahead of a Qatar Open semi-final against Agnieszka Radwanska on Saturday, she is on a 15-match winning streak.
Azarenka credits her transformation to a greater maturity on the court instilled by her coach Sam Sumyk and improved fitness, which has helped cut down on injuries and given her greater stamina. Hindered in the past by her emotions, Azarenka no longer has mid-court meltdowns, muttering to herself or even dissolving in tears when she starts losing control of a match.
"Last year by this time I was a little bit of a mess. I couldn't control any of my emotions, and I didn't really enjoy any part playing tennis," she said. "But when I came back after Doha to Indian Wells I had to change, my mentality on court, the way I approached the match, the way I approached the tough moment."
Azarenka said the key has been not taking every point to heart.
"I don't try to think why is it happening to me," she continued. "I just try to accept and deal with it, deal with the situation. Every opponent is going to try to beat me, beat the other players. I just try to stay really focused on each moment because I know it doesn't matter what the score is. You always have a chance until the match is done."
Azarenka has shown this week in Doha why she now is considered the best player on the tour.
The lanky, 6-foot Azarenka only has dropped nine games in three one-sided victories - all peppered with her trademark whoops that have been the talk of the tour for some time.
Her improved play has not been lost on her challengers like US Open champion Sam Stosur, whom she could face in the final in Qatar.
"I think one huge thing is that now she's got this confidence and this belief in her own game," Stosur said.
"She's always been very consistent throughout the year, but hadn't made that breakthrough from quarters or semis at Grand Slams, and then last year she made semis at Wimby, and then she comes out and wins the Aussie Open," she said. "I think it's one of those things where, as a player gets a little more mature, maybe just all around gets a little bit better. Once you've got that confidence, it doesn't matter how you play. If you've got that, it can definitely be a winning formula."
WTA president Stacey Allaster also welcome Azarenka's ascension to the top, replacing Caroline Wozniacki who was long criticized during her reign for being No. 1 without having won a Grand Slam.
"It has been great to watch Vika over the last few years develop both as a player and as a person," Allaster said in an email statement. "It's terrific to see her put all of the elements together needed to get to the very top of our sport and it's really her immense talent, perseverance and determination that have gotten her to this point."
"It's great to have her as one of the ambassadors of our sport."
Azarenka clearly seems to be having much more fun as the No. 1.
She fills every news conference with jokes — asked about baggage of being No. 1, she joked she always travels with lots of bags. She is more open and talkative than ever before, sharing her new love for photography and recalling stories about her grandmother whom she has called "one of the most optimistic people on the planet."
Azarenka insists she remains the same "hard-working tennis player" she was before Australia, though she admits her celebrity status is on the rise and more players are opponents have more motivation to beat her. After she won the Australian Open, she traveled to Los Angeles to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and appeared on the Ellen show.
"Of course it's a great thing to win the Major, but as I mentioned before, I want to keep going the same way, and I am just hungry for the new ones to come," she said of her desire to win Olympic gold this year along with more Grand Slams. "I mean, it's a great feeling to have that, but it's time to move on and work harder to get another one."