A season that started out with a bang for Victoria Azarenka has ended with a whimper.
That's because Azarenka didn't even make it to the semifinals of the WTA Championships in Istanbul. The Belarusian only went 1-2 in the round-robin play, despite being the highest-ranked player in her group. Even her lone win, a 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory over No. 6 Sara Errani, looked in doubt until Errani began to struggle with a thigh strain and cramping.
That far-from-convincing victory was the only one Azarenka has earned since the U.S. Open semifinals, a 1-5 stretch that included a three-match losing streak.
Azarenka has had an up-and-down year. She started 2013 on a high, defending her Australian Open title and retaining her No. 1 ranking. In Doha, in February, she lost her No. 1 ranking but still came away a winner, taking out Serena Williams in the final.
In fact, Azarenka made it all the way to May without losing a match. That doesn't mean that time period wasn't rife with controversy, though.
She started the year by pulling out before her semifinal match in Brisbane against Serena due to complications from a botched pedicure. Then at the Australian Open, she became the center of a media firestorm when she took a long medical timeout during her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. Many media members interpreted that as gamesmanship.
The chatter around Azarenka only turned more skeptical when she withdrew from Indian Wells in March before her quarterfinal match against Caroline Wozniacki and then pulled out of the Sony Open in Miami at the last minute due to an ongoing ankle injury.
The loud criticism surrounding her injuries, retirements and withdraws, clearly took a toll on Azarenka. In her final match at the WTA Championships against Li Na, Azarenka was clearly hampered by back problems and was unable to move around the court, but she stayed out there until the end, fighting back tears the whole time. She lost the match, 6-2, 6-1.
Afterward, she told the press that a big reason why she stayed out on the court was that she was afraid of the "discussion" that would have occurred if she had retired.
It was clear in Istanbul that Azarenka was burned out after a season where the spotlight was unforgiving, and she continuously had to come back from injury. She was off the tour for more than six weeks for her ankle injury, that took her out of Indian Wells, and had to work her way back into form during the French Open, finally falling in the semifinals in a three-set thriller against Maria Sharapova.
Then she fell—literally—in the first round at Wimbledon and ended up having to pull out of the tournament with a knee injury.
She came back for the U.S. Open Series hard-court tournaments in the summer but looked noticeably out of form and out of practice. Still, she, once again, was able to fight getting herself back into shape, winning the Western & Southern Open with a victory over Serena in the final, and then pushing her to the brink in a three-set loss in the U.S. Open final.
There is no doubt that Azarenka is a worthy No. 2 this year, as she's the only player all year who has been able to consistently push Serena. And it's certainly difficult to call a season where she won a Grand Slam and beat Williams twice a disappointment.
But the way she ended the year, with back-to-back losses to Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic in the Asian Swing and an unimpressive showing at the WTA Championships, certainly put a damper on things.
According to Azarenka, it was the pressure that she's been under, due to her high level of play over the last two years, that led to the mental exhaustion.
As I said, you know, it's been a long year. It's been a tough year. It's been tough two years, so that consistency I have been playing with, it's sometimes difficult to keep all the time.
You know, everybody goes through tough moments in their career, and the important thing is how you come out of it. You know, I just need to battle right now as much as I can.
Azarenka is far from the only player to be burned out at the end of the year.
On both the WTA and ATP, the top stars are often too drained from the grueling season to play their best in the final tournament of the season. Serena Williams has been known to pull out of the Championships all together, and on the men's tour, Rafael Nadal has never won the World Tour Finals, the ATP's version of the year-end championships.
But still, it's Azarenka's consistency and her ability to fight through her bad days that have brought her to the top of the game the past two years. She's still young and still going through growing pains dealing with her own emotions and the stress caused by being in the public eye. Hopefully, she'll learn from this fall so she doesn't go through a stretch this brutal for the remainder of her career.
While her slump at the end of the year should be a wake-up call that leads to better schedule management and self-care, it's certainly nothing to panic over.
If we've learned one thing from watching Azarenka over the past few years, it's that she is too resilient to ever be counted out. She just needs a break, which is exactly what the offseason will provide.