Commentary

How the goalie helped the tennis star

Originally Published: April 3, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Victoria AzarenkaMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka considers Nikolai Khabibulin her second family.

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Ablaze in a shrieking pink blouse louder than her on-court emissions (if that is possible), Victoria Azarenka sits in the outside patio of the players' lounge on Wednesday here at the Sony Ericsson Open.

When a reporter congratulates her on her relatively meteoric rise in the women's rankings -- from No. 506 to No. 146 to No. 92 to No. 30 to No. 15 to the current No. 10 -- her nose wrinkles beneath a stylish pair of aviator sunglasses and a frown creeps across her face.

"I wouldn't say it was so fast," the 19-year-old from Belarus counters in very precise English. "For example, other players have done it faster, [Agnieszka] Radwanska, [Maria] Sharapova, too.

"I'm not really looking to the rankings. As long as I keep improving, my ranking's going to go up."

Azarenka is the only teenager in either top 10 -- Radwanska, who turned 20 in March, was knocked out of the No. 10 spot by Azarenka and is presently No. 11 -- but it is this remarkably chilled, big-picture attitude that will soon push her even farther up the ladder, the toughest real estate in tennis.

She had never beaten Dinara Safina, but a few weeks ago in Indian Wells Azarenka knocked off the world No. 2 and top seed on her way to the semifinals. On Thursday, she crossed another threshold. Azarenka was 0-for-3 in her brief career against Svetlana Kuznetsova, but this time, Azarenka was better in the large moments, winning 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, and advanced to Saturday's final. She'll meet Serena Williams, with whom she has some unfinished business.

"It's the biggest moment, I would say, in my career," Azarenka said in her well-attended postmatch news conference. "I always thought that I want to be there. I would never think that I would.

"I guess my really wanting it happened now."

Actually, the wanting has been happening for better than five years now. Azarenka will tell you there is even more to it than that. The real reason she is where she is, Azarenka insisted, is her sponsor, the head of a family with ties all the way back to her birthplace, Minsk, Belarus.

"It's like my second family," Azarenka said. "They helped me so much, without them, I don't think I could make it. Yeah, really."

The sponsor is a famous, but notoriously busy man.

"He will call you later tonight," Azarenka said, taking the number. "He has a game."

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAzarenka is primed for the biggest moment of her career when she faces Serena Williams in the Sony Ericsson Open final.
A long journey

It's past midnight in Chicago -- 1 a.m. in Miami -- when the phone rings.

In a candid and far-ranging conversation, Nikolai Khabibulin will never mention the fact that a few hours earlier he played goal for the Chicago Blackhawks. Or that St. Louis' Jeff Woywitka spoiled his shutout with a power-play goal with two seconds left. Or that Khabibulin, with a record of 21-8-6, is one of the leading reasons Chicago is in commanding position to secure a playoff berth in the Western Conference.

No, he prefers to talk about his Vika.

"I'm very proud of what she's achieved," Khabibulin said softly. "For her, she's just starting to get better and better."

That process, that long, long journey, began with Khabibulin, who was born in Sverdlovsk, Russia, and his Belarusian wife, Victoria.

Their daughter, Sasha, was a junior tennis player and, over the years, Victoria would find herself chatting with Alla Azarenka, another tennis mom, at the National Tennis Center in Minsk. They became friendly. It was 2004, the same year that Khabibulin became the first Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup, with the Tampa Bay Lightning, when Alla complained about the struggle to find good coaching and competition. They were having problems with the Belarus tennis officials and it just wasn't working out in Marabella, Spain.

Victoria mentioned it to her husband and said, "Take a look at this girl."

He and Azarenka rallied one day, and Khabibulin came away impressed.

"She was 14, and I'm struggling out there when we start hitting," Khabibulin said. "I'm not a tennis person, but you could see the fire in her eyes. She was hungry, very hungry, to get better."

Said Azarenka, "I realized there were not many good players there in Spain and I wanted more. Nik offered to bring me to the States, offered to pay for the coaching and [expenses]. I went to live with the family in Scottsdale [Arizona]."

So did her coach, Antonio Van Grichen.

"Yeah, me, too," Van Grichen said, smiling. "It's pretty much like a second family for her. They embrace her like a daughter."

Because he is a world-class athlete, Khabibulin understands the world in which Azarenka lives. Beginning in the summer of 2005, he and his wife helped her adjust to her new profession -- and an entirely different culture.

"In Russia, not many people have money and the opportunity to be athletes," Azarenka said. "Nik understands this and gave me this opportunity. He just wanted to give me that and see what I could do with it.

"Really, it's just the nicest thing you can do."

The money, Khabibulin said, wasn't the point.

"We said, 'If you make it, just pay it back,'" Khabibulin said. "'If you don't, well, we tried to help.'"

It wasn't long before Azarenka paid the Khabibulins back. And over time, a close relationship has developed. How would Azarenka describe it? Father-daughter, brother-sister?

"No," Azarenka said. "More of a guy friend, a best friend I can talk to. Just talking to him makes everything seem easier. Seriously, I can talk to him about shopping, even."

What?

"Yeah," Khabibulin admitted, "shopping sometimes. You know, Christian Dior shoes."

[+] EnlargeNikolai Khabibulin
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesNikolai Khabibulin's guidance extends well beyond Azarenka's tennis career.

Said Azarenka, "He knows how many shoes I have in my closet, better than me. Lots of Christian Dior."

Oh, and boys.

"Boys?" Khabibulin asked. "Ah, sometimes if she asks me something, I have to tell her what I think. Sometimes, these are tough discussions. It is the same with Sasha."

Said Van Grichen, "They'll talk three, four times a week. Nik's a very open-minded person. Boyfriends, yeah, he tries to help her balance all of that. He helps her with the life stuff. It's not always about the tennis."

Capturing the fire

As happens often with great athletes, Azarenka's greatest strength -- that fire in the eyes Khabibulin saw five years ago -- is also her greatest weakness.

"I'm a very competitive person on the court," Azarenka said. "Definitely I've had a lot of problems fighting myself. I still have it sometimes. I'm getting better sometimes. It's the most important thing to change right now."

This is the leading topic these days when she talks with Khabibulin.

"She gets upset and sometimes I have to put everything in perspective for her," he said. "I don't know if it's the age, because my daughter's like that. The older she gets, the better she controls herself. A few years ago, watching her, it was like, 'What are you doing?'

"Now she has better reactions to things."

Van Grichen agrees.

"She needs to learn to motivate herself when things get tough -- pump herself up, instead of pushing herself down," he said. "This is happening more."

When Azarenka lost the first set to Safina in Indian Wells in a gut-wrenching tiebreaker, she looked ready to melt down. But she contained the blaze and methodically won 12 of the final 16 games.

"It gives me confidence," Azarenka said. "Knowing you just have to stick in there, hang in there. I never beat anyone ranked that high. Proved to me I can beat these girls."

Azarenka's got the chops to beat anyone, including the Williams sisters. Listed at 5-foot-10, 132 pounds -- those around her swear she's gained an inch in the last year -- she can really bang the ball from the baseline; when she flattens it out, her shots can be breathtaking. Azarenka's backhand is her better side, but like so many young players, she needs to beef up her serve. The only downside? Those disquieting, Sharapova-esque grunts -- en-uhh! en-uhh! -- she unleashes when the ball hits her racket.

In the semifinal here against Kuznetsova, she served for the match in the third set and shrank from the moment. She failed to convert a match point, then visibly tightened, double-faulting a la Elena Dementieva. Serving at 6-5, Azarenka lost two more match points, but on the fourth she outlasted Kuznetsova, who dumped a backhand into the net.

Azarenka squatted behind the baseline, her head in her hands, and turned to her box with a look of amazement on her face. She probably thought of Khabibulin.

"He explains to me, bad matches happen," said Azarenka, who still considers the Khabibulin home in Scottsdale her own. "Stick with it. Whenever I have issues -- decisions with coaching, things like that. My last match, with [Agnes] Szavay, didn't play my best match. I was a little bit down. He said, 'You just have to keep rolling ahead.'"

Said Khabibulin, "I'm trying to share my experience with her. Good, bad, sometimes the ugly. I tell her what I feel. I think sometimes it helps her."

Azarenka, incredibly, has a record of 22-2, the best in women's tennis. This teenager has improved so swiftly, it's like watching time-lapse photography -- except in real time. Azarenka won tournaments in Brisbane and Memphis, and her only losses are to Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals at Indian Wells and to Serena Williams after retiring in the fourth round of the Australian Open. There is an asterisk, however. Azarenka won the first set 6-3, but, trailing 2-4 in the second, succumbed to nausea.

"I was just sick; woke up in the night," Azarenka explained. "I was very, very disappointed because I played so well. You never know what might have happened."

We'll find out on Saturday when they meet in the final.

"She's a great champion," Azarenka said. "I just would really like to play against her, to have another chance to play against her, because in Australia we couldn't finish."

The goalie, who has an off day, will be watching.

"She's starting to believe in herself," Khabibulin said. "I can't wait to see how good she's going to be."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.