International Blog – Michael Dickens
When Victoria Azarenka gave birth to her son Leo in 2016, it changed her tennis landscape forever. She was hurled into a custody battle for her son that only now is being resolved in a court of law. The native of Minsk, Belarus, has struggled at times since returning to the WTA from maternity leave, both mentally and physically. However, Azarenka has never been afraid to face the best competition her sport has to offer no matter how distracting the circumstances are.
After suffering a tough and disappointing three-set defeat against World No. 8 Sloane Stephens in the second round of the Mutua Madrid Open on May 6, in which she lost 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 to the 2017 U.S. Open champion, the 29-year-old former World No. 1 freely spoke her mind: “Tennis is my job, not my life.”
With those seven words, Azarenka drew a line in the clay, metaphorically if not emphatically.
Once upon a time, long before a year into her comeback, Azarenka hinted at hanging up her racquet by age 27. Nobody would have blamed her. After all, the future Hall of Famer had achieved a remarkable career, highlighted by 20 singles and six doubles titles, a year-end World No. 1 ranking (2012), five consecutive Top 10 finishes between 2009 and 2013, and two Grand Slam singles titles, both won at the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013. Her cumulative win-loss record in Grand Slams is 124-43. Add to the mix, she won two medals at the 2012 London Summer Olympics representing her home country of Belarus.
Now, it would not be surprising to see Azarenka become like a female Roger Federer and play into her mid-30s. After all, the 6 foot-tall (1.83 m) Azarenka still enjoys the spirit of competition and, slowly but surely, she’s getting her ranking back. Currently Azarenka has risen to No. 52.
The 2019 season has been one full of highs and lows for Azarenka, which began with back-to-back first-round losses at Auckland and Melbourne before winning a round in St. Petersburg. Then, after a quarterfinal finish in Acapulco, Azarenka lost a highly-publicized second-round match against fellow mom and World No. 11 Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-3, at Indian Wells. She followed it with a second-round loss to World No. 21 Caroline Garcia in Miami. However, the Belarusian strung together four consecutive victories during an in-form week in Monterrey, Mexico, before retiring in the second set of the final against Garbiñe Muguruza with a leg injury.
More recently, Azarenka traveled all the way to Brisbane to represent Belarus in the Fed Cup World Group semifinals, where she split two singles matches. She lost to Ash Barty, 7-6 (2), 6-3, and beat Sam Stosur, 6-1, 6-1. Then, she teamed with Aryna Sabalenka and was on the losing side of the decisive doubles rubber against Barty and Stosur, 7-5, 3-6, 6-2.
From Brisbane, Azarenka flew half-way around the world to play three days later in Stuttgart and beat Vera Zvonareva at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. She followed it with a round of 16 win over Top 5 player Karolina Pliskova, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, before losing to the eventual finalist, Anett Kontaveit, in the quarterfinals, when she retired in the third set with a shoulder injury. After beating Daria Kasatkina, then losing to Stephens in Madrid, Azarenka’s win-loss record stands at 13-10 heading toward Rome and, soon, Roland Garros.
“Playing Vika is always really competitive. She’s a good player, a great champion,” Stephens told the WTA Insider after their Madrid match.
Following her loss to Stephens, Azarenka said, “I felt that I really was taking all the control from the baseline points. I felt that I was doing the right things. I was moving the ball around. I was moving well, and I was playing smart tennis.”
Later in the same interview, Azarenka reflected on some of the takeaways from playing Stephens: “I didn’t create anything with my serve today and it was really frustrating. I didn’t really have a game plan. There was really no game plan of what to do with the serve and that is something I need to take a look at and fix.
“The good point is that with all that, I was still able to create those opportunities to take that. It’s going to be a good lesson learned for me and I’ll move on.“
Azarenka’s coach, Wim Fissette, interviewed during WTA Coaches Media Day in Madrid, put things in perspective for his pupil, saying: “She’s a super happy mother of a beautiful son. That’s the most important. Of course, she wants to be the best tennis player in the world, but the most important is still the son, of course.”
Azarenka was asked in Madrid if she still has the same drive she did when she was younger, before she became a mother. “Yes, I do. But it is not my priority any more,” she said. “To be quite frank, if I had to go play a tournament or spend time with my son, there is no choice. It’s going to be my son. But I have to work. When I do my job, in the limited time I’m away from my son, I’m going to make sure I put 100 percent into doing the best I can. Otherwise I won’t be doing it.”