WASHINGTON, March 10, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka stepped out on Stadium 1 court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for their respective first-round matches in the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday evening, they represented two moms who were trying to recapture some of their old tennis magic.
This WTA Premier Event in the California desert resort town of Indian Wells, in the Coachella Valley, is the focus of the tennis calendar (along with its companion ATP Masters 1000 event), and so far, it’s a dream come true for tennis fans flocking to the Tennis Garden to be able to watch Williams and Azarenka, both former World No. 1 players who are now unranked, return after their notable absences last year.
In her first official tour-level match in 14 months since beating her older sister Venus to win the 2017 Australian Open, when she was two months pregnant, Serena Williams defeated Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 7-5, 6-3. While it wasn’t classic Serena – and we shouldn’t expect that in just her first match back – the 23-time Grand Slam champion who is now without an official ranking showed lots of poise under pressure. Among many observations: Williams still possesses a powerful first serve that can translate into hitting aces – she served four of them against the No. 53 Diyas – and, without a doubt, she still knows how to crush a tennis ball from both her forehand and backhand sides. Granted, it will probably take getting a few matches under her belt for the 36-year-old Williams to get her legs back – not to mention the intangible big-match emotions she knows and displays so well – and to not feel the weight and pressure of the entire tennis world watching her every serve and ground stroke.
“Right now, for this particular tournament, I’m really just trying to take it easy and not put too much stress or expectation on myself,” said Williams, asked about her expectations as she begins her comeback. “This is one of the few times I’ve been able to do that. It’s been really fun.
“The minute I realized that I was going to take some time off, I just wanted to stay fit and stay ready the best I could,” she said. It’s been six months since Williams gave birth to Alexis Olympia, and the two have rarely been apart since. “It just wasn’t my time to retire yet, even though it would have been a great way to retire. I just felt like my story wasn’t over.”
Throughout her storied career, Williams has never been afraid of being self-critical of her game. “I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting there and that’s one thing I realize: I’m not going to be there today or next week or tomorrow,” she told the media after Thursday’s match. “But I will eventually get there, and I do have my goals.
“Every day is going to be a challenge for me, but I know I’ll overcome it, and I’m ready to overcome it.”
Meanwhile, in Azarenka’s first match since last summer’s Wimbledon and only her second in the past 21 months due to her pregnancy and a child custody dispute involving her 14-month-old son Leo, she beat No. 70 Heather Watson of Great Britain, 6-4, 6-2. Many observers commented that the 204th-ranked Azarenka appears to have lost weight from her six-foot (1.83-meter) frame. She’s also changed her service motion and parted ways with her longtime coach, Michael Joyce. One thing’s for sure: Azarenka, always a fan favorite, hasn’t lost her desire to compete – or to win.
After her victory, Azarenka (@vika7) tweeted:
What an emotional moment this was! Thank you all so much for such a wonderful and warm welcome! It means the 🌎 to me ❤ 🎾 pic.twitter.com/Lu003Lq4Fy
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) 9. März 20
During her post-midnight presser that followed her win over Watson, Azarenka was asked by Christopher Clarey of The New York Times if she felt the times she hasn’t been able to play because of her on-going custody battle were lost months. Her answer spoke volumes: “It’s definitely been and still is a really difficult situation to be in and it’s hard to only focus on playing tennis and I probably will never just focus on playing tennis being a mom.
“Overall, having extra unnecessary things definitely doesn’t make it easier, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lost time. It’s unfortunate and it’s not a great time but it’s part of life and I’m still 28 years old and recently there are number ones over 30 so I’m okay with that. I’m still young.”
Because both Williams and Azarenka are in the same half of the 96-player draw, they can only meet in the semifinals, unlike when they last met in the 2016 BNP Paribas Open final, which Azarenka won 6-4, 6-4. However, don’t be surprised if sometime later on this season they wind up meeting in a final. And, wouldn’t it be marvelous if these two tennis moms were able to do it with their children watching them play.
“We have another connection which is a lot bigger than tennis I think right now,” said Azarenka. “But I think we both can easily say we can’t wait to play against each other on some big stages.”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.