Victoria Azarenka gives tearful press conference after Australian Open first-round exit

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A tearful Victoria Azarenka admits she is “struggling” to reclaim her confidence on the court after suffering a first-round exit at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

The former world No. 1 and two-time champion in Melbourne had to stop towards the end of her press conference as she got emotional while discussing her current troubles.

“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger, I want to believe that and I’m going to work hard for it. Sometimes I just need a little time and patience and a little support,” said Azarenka, while fighting back tears, after her 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2 loss to Laura Siegemund.

Ranked 53 in the world, Azarenka hasn’t been able to recapture her previous top-10 form since returning from maternity leave in June 2017. Off-court problems that included a custody dispute with the father of her child have interrupted her scheduling over the past year and a half.

She started 2019 with two opening round losses in Auckland, and now Melbourne, and confessed it’s been difficult trying to translate her level from practice to matches.

“Right now is just a harder struggle for me. I can continue to repeat this word, that I’m ‘struggling’ right now. I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s okay. I don’t think, sitting here today, that I failed. But I’m struggling. Failing is when you give up and you don’t try again. But I’m struggling. If I’m going to continue to struggle, and to get out of that, that’s what I’ve got to do, then that’s what I’m going to.”

Azarenka acknowledges that she is low on confidence at the moment and says it’s tricky finding it in matches.

“If there’s a store where you can buy it, I’ll go purchase it,” she says when asked how she can get back her confidence.

“It’s just playing matches, playing tournaments. I’m going to try to play as much as I can, try to build something. My ambitions are high, I know what I’m capable of, to start to execute, take it step by step, it’s going to be a process. I think being so idealistic and knowing what I’m capable of, I put myself really high and I have to be realistic, I have to work hard, I have to keep playing, I have to continue to try to find a way. We’ll see. It’s the beginning of the season, it’s a sh**** beginning of the season for me, but it’s not the end of the year.”

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Serena Williams cruises into second round of Australian Open

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Serena Williams

Serena Williams made an emphatic return to competitive tennis at the Australian Open.

The American’s clash with fellow mother Tatjana Maria was her first outside of exhibition events since the tumultuous US Open final last September.

But, while the events of that day still generate plenty of interest, Williams is focused firmly on trying to secure that elusive 24th grand slam singles title.

This was certainly a great start, with the 37-year-old, dressed in a striking green playsuit, taking just 49 minutes to come through 6-0 6-2. German Maria won only five points in an 18-minute first set but made a better fight of it in the second.

The result extended Williams’ winning streak in Melbourne to eight matches following her title in 2017, and she said: “I think the last time I was here I was pregnant and playing, which is insane, so it’s kind of weird walking back on – by myself this time.

“I have so many wonderful memories from the last time I was here, it was literally the best match of my career.”

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Serena Williams facing highest pressure she's ever faced, says coach Patrick Mouratoglou

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The pressure Serena Williams is facing to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of Grand Slams won is the greatest she has ever encountered, according to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

Williams is chasing history this upcoming fortnight at the Australian Open and while she has countless records to her name, Mouratoglou believes Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 Grand Slam titles remains the ultimate challenge for the American superstar.

She is one major of way from equaling that record, but Williams doesn’t just want to match it, she wants to break it.

Seeded 16 in Melbourne, Williams has already reached two finals in the three Grand Slams she has contested since returning from maternity leave last year.

The 23 majors she has won so far make her the Open Era record holder, but just like breaking Steffi Graf’s tally of 22 was tough to crack, usurping Court will be no mean feat, especially with Williams traveling the tour as a 37-year-old mother, with more than two decades of experience on the professional tour behind her.

“My personal challenge is to help her finish her career the way she wants to now, and she wants to break the records, especially the record of Margaret Court. It’s not easy,” Mouratoglou told Sport360 while promoting a new mobile game, Tennis Manager, he unveiled this week.

“The pressure is the highest pressure you can experience in sport, because you play for history. It’s a real challenge. The challenge is also to keep improving her game, because if she doesn’t, she will never break that record.

“She needs to keep improving and she wants to. I think there is a real challenge definitely, breaking that record is probably the biggest challenge you can have as a coach, helping her do that.”

Asked if the pressure Williams is facing now is higher than it has ever been, Mouratoglou said: “Yes for sure. Because since 2013 she has come back to No. 1 in the world for three and a half years in a row. And for three and a half years, everybody expected her to win every match, which I thought was the highest pressure possible for a tennis player and if you got other players that have to experience that, not many can handle it.

“Only the top, top, top champions can. And she did incredibly well in that. And then she became an icon, so it’s even more pressure. And then she started to beat the biggest records in tennis. And when you are one Grand Slam away from equaling the record of all-time, I don’t think there is more pressure than that, and you’re an icon, everybody expects you to do it, the pressure is incredible.

“But that makes it really exciting also. If there is no pressure, there is no motivation, there is no stress. I’m talking about the positive stress that makes you achieve big things. It’s very difficult to deal with pressure but it’s also what makes the sport so exciting.”

At this point, Williams is an expert in dealing with pressure and she’s dealt with it in different ways over the years. When she was bidding for the ‘Serena Slam’ for a second time in her career in 2015 (winning four majors in a row across two calendar years), she forbid the media from mentioning her pursuit. This time, Williams isn’t shying away from stating her intentions.

“[The number 24] has always been significant since I got 22, then 23. It’s something that I clearly want but I have to be able to get there and beat a lot of good players to get it,” she told reporters in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago.

Williams landed in the top quarter of the draw and opens her Australian Open campaign against fellow mother, Tatjana Maria of Germany, on Tuesday.

She could face Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, and could get her sister Venus Williams or world No. 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round. Serena has reached the final on her last three appearances at Melbourne Park, winning the title in 2015 and 2017, and losing to Angelique Kerber in 2016. She missed last year’s edition while on maternity leave.

Serena appears in the trailer for the Tennis Manager game launched by her coach Mouratoglou in the build-up to the action in Melbourne.

Partnering Augustin Pluchet of RCG, Mouratoglou says that tennis was the only sport out there without a proper management game and they were hoping to fill that void.

“I think the tennis fans love to know what’s behind-the-scenes, how champions practice, how do you negotiate the contracts with the brands and this is game not only explains that, you become an actor of that and for tennis fans that’s an incredible experience,” he explained.

“You become the actor, like decide who you want to work with, how you want your player to practice, which tournament he’s going to play, you can coach him, you can negotiate the contracts, so you become a real actor of the professional tennis world.”

The game (iOS/Android) is available for free download here.

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