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Made in Minsk: No. 1 Azarenka remembers her roots

By Caroline Cheese, for CNN
updated 5:17 AM EDT, Fri April 27, 2012
World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has come a long way since first picking up a tennis racket in her native Belarus. World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has come a long way since first picking up a tennis racket in her native Belarus.
Humble beginnings
Charitable cause
First taste of tennis
Young gun
Wimbledon winner
Winning ways
Grand slam champion
Number one
Tips from the top
  • Victoria Azarenka is the first player from Belarus to win a grand slam singles title
  • The 22-year-old has lost one match this season, and won 26, including four titles
  • The world No. 1 was introduced to tennis by her mother, who worked in a tennis center
  • Azarenka moved to the United States when she was 15, and now lives in Monaco

(CNN) -- She lives in Monaco, and she honed her skills in Marbella and Arizona -- but world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was most definitely made in Minsk.

Hurting from a slow start to her 2011 season, Azarenka wondered if professional tennis was really the career for her. A trip back home to Belarus and a chat with her beloved grandmother soon put her back on track.

"She never really talked to me about tennis or anything specific, she just was explaining to me about when she was growing up," Azarenka told CNN's Open Court.

"You just look at different perspective of things and I just realize, you know what, I'm so lucky to have an opportunity to do something that I really love and I'm here sitting and complaining about how hard my life is because I lost a tennis match when some people are really suffering with big troubles and they have a smile on their face."

Since that conversation, Azarenka has won her first grand slam title at the Australian Open, thrashing the far more experienced Maria Sharapova in January's final to become the first player from Belarus to win a major singles crown.

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The 22-year-old has also claimed the No. 1 ranking, sparked by a 26-match winning start to this season that only ended in Miami last month.

While she wants to avoid coming across, as she puts it, as a "Cinderella story," Belarus was hardly a hotbed of tennis talent when Azarenka was growing up, and her future was never mapped out.

When she started working in a local tennis center, Azarenka's mother Alla needed a distraction for the young "Vika" so she could get on with her job. In desperation, Alla gave her daughter a racket and ball.

"It was just fun for me to hit against the wall and one of the coaches saw me and asked me if I wanted to join the group and I was like, 'I don't know, I'm scared,' but I picked it up right away," Azarenka said.

"We didn't even step on the court for the first year and a half. We played in a hall ... and there was 40 kids and we were so happy when we would hit one ball and wait five minutes for another one."

When she wasn't part of the coaching group, Azarenka was hitting against a wall at the center. When she wasn't at the center, she would play against her grandfather at home with a soft ball and badminton rackets, using the sofa and bookshelves to make the tennis court.

Azarenka eventually outgrew her surroundings. She trained in Spain briefly before eventually completing her tennis education in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Moving away from home at the age of 15 was difficult, but Azarenka said: "I saw my goal in the tunnel and I just wanted to do absolutely everything to reach it."

And she isn't done yet. With the top ranking and a major title in the bag, Azarenka has already moved on to new targets.

With the French Open and Wimbledon approaching, she has recruited two-time grand slam champion and former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo to her coaching team.

"I felt that she could help me in the way that my team probably never experienced before," Azarenka said of Mauresmo, who retired at the end of 2009.

My real home will always be Belarus where I'm from and it can honestly never change
Victoria Azarenka

"She's been through everything all ready, so those extra details or something could help, that's what we always look for, something to be better."

The Olympics also loom large. At the last Games in Beijing, Azarenka was "so hyper and so excited just to be there that I wasn't worried about playing, I was just worried about being there and collecting pins."

She tried and failed to hunt down the autographs of record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps and basketball's golden boy Kobe Bryant, but come August and the London Games, Azarenka will be one of the star attractions.

Her trips home to Belarus, where she is an idol for thousands of children, have prepared her for the attention.

"I do some kids clinics, and the last one I actually did in Minsk, kids came from outside the cities, it was like almost 300 kids on one tennis court and they all start pushing each other because they all wanted to play and I was supposed to play for only one hour," Azarenka said.

"And I saw these kids, they were just like pushing each other and fighting and I said, 'Guys please stop fighting because I'll play with each one of you until everyone is done, I won't go home before that.' I was exhausted after that, but you have so much positive energy that it is just priceless."

So while Azarenka might live in glamorous Monaco with neighbors like Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic, there is only one home.

"My real home will always be Belarus where I'm from, and it can honestly never change."

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