AO Spotlight: Victoria Azarenka

  • Matt Trollope

After Victoria Azarenka lost in the first round of Australian Open 2019, she broke down in tears in her press conference. She did not even appear in the draw at AO 2020.

Many observers assumed the former world No.1 and two-time major champion was a spent force – until she returned with a bang during the US hard-court season, vaulting back to the cusp of the top 10.

On court

Azarenka’s heady days as the WTA’s premier player came back in 2012 and 2013, when she won back-to-back Australian Opens, held the No.1 ranking for 51 weeks, and also reached two US Open finals.

After injuries affected her 2014 and 2015 seasons, she rediscovered that form in early 2016, collecting titles in Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami, winning 26 of her first 27 matches and rising from No.22 to No.5 in just three months.

She then announced she was pregnant in July 2016 and missed a year of competition, but subsequent seasons were disrupted by a prolonged child custody dispute, often preventing her from travelling and competing.

This made her 2020 resurgence all the more compelling and heartwarming.

Victoria Azarenka celebrates her US Open 2020 semifinal victory over Serena Williams.
Victoria Azarenka celebrates her 1-6 6-3 6-3 victory over Serena Williams in the 2020 US Open semifinals, her first ever win against Williams at a Grand Slam tournament in 11 attempts. (Getty Images)

Ranked 59th entering the relocated Western & Southern Open, Azarenka won the title, her first trophy in four-and-a-half years. She went on to reach the US Open final – her first appearance in a Grand Slam final in seven years – and closed her season with a runner-up finish in Ostrava.

She won 18 of her last 22 matches, rose to world No.13, and was named the WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year.

Notable stat

After not winning a singles match in 12 months (August 2019 to August 2020), Azarenka suddenly and surprisingly built an 11-match winning streak that Naomi Osaka ended in the US Open final.

X-factor

Many a think-piece emerged analysing the factors behind the Belarusian’s phoenix-like rise.

Some pointed to her game, with all its components and weapons firing in sync once more.

Peak Azarenka was often compared to Novak Djokovic and it was obvious why when watching her demolish Elise Mertens 6-1 6-0 in the US Open quarterfinals; the incredible accuracy and depth of her returns, her relentless consistency, her suffocating court positioning, her ability to blend offence and defence and take the ball early all contributed to utterly overwhelm the Belgian.

Yet it wasn’t just that; other commentary pointed to a shift in her thinking. Azarenka seemed rejuvenated, more philosophical, open to discussing her journey of personal growth, and grateful for the opportunity to compete again at the highest level.

These strengthened physical and mental pillars helped make her practically unbeatable when the sport resumed in August.

Off court

This perspective change has come about given what she has endured in her personal life.

Son Leo is now four years old, and those four years have been transformative for Azarenka, whose on-court results were impacted by the turmoil she was experiencing off it.

“I wouldn't wish that on anybody to go through what I've been going through,” she said in April 2018. “It's hard to only focus on playing tennis. One day I'll write a book about this, because it's Hollywood-worthy.”

Wiser and more mature at age 31, Azarenka frequently shares motivational quotes on her social media channels, reflecting the journey she has undertaken and how she now approaches life.

She said … 

Comparing her 2013 and 2020 US Open finals: "Mentally I'm in such a different place. I think seven years ago, after I won the Australian Open and stuff, and playing kind of consistently with good results ... (I) kind of expected for me to be in the final. I don't think that was the case this year. But it feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me. It feels nicer.”

"I started taking more responsibility for what I do, for what happens to me, and responsibility of how I'm going to react to situations. That helped me grow. That helped me become a better person that I am today. I think that shows on the tennis court, too.”

Experts are saying …

"Before the global pandemic, I felt as though Azarenka's shots didn't have enough pace on them - without much spin, her ball had simply become too user-friendly for her opponents. Looking at the power of her shots in New York this past fortnight, I'm sure she used that extended break to become stronger than ever before, allowing her to hit the ball harder and push her opponents back. It's that extra punch in her shots that took Azarenka through to her first Grand Slam final in seven years."
- Martina Navratilova