“Victoria, the pride of Belarus”. That’s how President Alexander Lukashenko’s congratulation letter began. But the leader failed to mention that the Belarusian woman tennis player Viktoria Azarenka earned €1.7 million in just two weeks – and that she would never have done so well had she not left Belarus in the first place.
On Saturday night (28.01), Ms Azarenka won the Australian Open, this year’s first of the four Grand Slam tournaments, the most important events in international tennis, beating Russia’s Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0. The 22-year-old Azarenka now tops the world tennis ranking, having entered the hall of fame besides tennis celebrities such as Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.
“The Homeland is grateful for your great achievement, which will be inscribed forever in the history of Belarusian sport”, President Lukashenko wrote. He also awarded Ms Azarenka with the Homeland Medal, one of the country’s highest distinctions, until now reserved for war heroes rather than athletes.
Mr Lukashenko praises and congratulates, even though Ms Azarenka is a symbol of success achieved far away from her home country. She was born in Minsk and started playing tennis at the age of seven. Her mother, Alla, worked as an instructor at the largest of the capital city’s tennis clubs.
Moved with her family to Monte Carlo
Tennis was a discipline less popular in the former Soviet republics than martial arts, ice hockey or football, but was still one appreciated especially by the nomenklatura, who were able to afford the equipment and lessons. In Belarus, tennis owed its popularity to occasional international successes: 1998 French Open finalist Natasha Zvereva, semi-finalist Vladimir Volchkov, and Max Mirnyi, one of the world’s top doubles players. All come from Belarus.
To achieve international success, tennis players have to be able to travel around the world, which is why even in Soviet times they were allowed to go abroad and, in some cases, train there. Mirnyi went to Florida and Azarenka, as the country’s top junior player at the age of 14, to Scottsdale, Arizona.
There she was helped by the Russian-born professional NHL [the North-American ice hockey league] player Nikolai Khabibulin, then living in Phoenix, whom Azarenka’s mother knew back from Soviet times. An NHL star and millionaire, Khabibulin offered the talented junior player a scholarship and shelter. Without his help, Azarenka’s career would have probably floundered because it was only after several seasons of training with American instructors that she developed the offensive style that today makes her win.
In the US, things went quickly for Azarenka – she became the world’s top-ranked junior at the age of 17 and several years later won her first professional tournaments, in Brisbane, Memphis, and Miami.
After earning her first million dollars, she moved with her family to Monte Carlo. The Belarusian authorities didn’t try to prevent her, because Ms Azarenka was already ranked among the world’s top ten tennis players and the publicity did Mr Lukashenko’s regime more good than harm.
She never comments on political issues
In Monaco, Vika, as she is known, lives near the world’s no. 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic and, like him, pays no taxes. That’s important because she’s already earned $2.3 million playing tennis. She is trained by a Frenchman, is represented by a US agency, and sponsored by Nike, Rolex and several other brands that in her home country are available to very few.
She’s never fallen foul of the regime and, unlike Martina Navratilova or Ivan Lendl who quickly exchanged their Soviet-bloc passports for US ones, still plays under the Belarusian flag, duly attends national-team matches, visits Minsk (though mainly for social purposes) and some time ago played there a charity match against Karolina Wozniacka.
When foreign journalists ask her about Belarus, she always says nice things – about her grandmother, a kindergarten teacher who was so hard-working she had to be forced to go into retirement, or that the “country is clean and the people honest and diligent”. She never comments on political issues.
Mr Lukashenko has repaid her kindness. He invites her to Belarus every time she scores a major win and boasts about her, but has kept away from her relatives – and her dollars.
Victoria Azarenka in the Belarusian press
Viktoria Azarenka’s victory in Melbourne made the front pages of the official press in Minsk. Here’s a selection from Respublika (“Viktoria!” – Victory), Gomelskaya Pravda (“In Australia Azarenka came first”) and Sovetskaya Belorussiya (“Victoria the First”).