From 2011 to 2013, Victoria Azarenka reached the quarter-final or better in singles at eight of the 12 Grand Slams, winning two and finishing runner-up at two more.
Only 22 when she beat Maria Sharapova to win her first Major at the 2012 Australian Open, Azarenka seemed destined for the big league. When she lost her fourth Major final a year later at the US Open, it felt like only a matter of time before she would have a chance to add to that tally.
Between 2014 and mid-2016, she reached only five quarter-finals before taking a break to give birth to her son Leo.
Since her return in 2017, she has crossed the third round in singles just twice – 2018 US Open and 2019 Wimbledon – but did not go past that stage in the eight Slams she played.
In the meantime, she reached the final of 2018 Wimbledon in mixed doubles and 2019 US Open in women’s doubles, losing both. She missed the first Grand Slam of 2020 due to personal reasons.
It appeared that the once world No 1 singles player was going to be someone who would languish somewhere in between what was and what could have been. The hope for another Major for the 31-year-old was probably in doubles, not singles on the uber-competitive WTA tour.
All of that changed when Grand Slam tennis returned after seven months in a coronavirus-affected season. At the 2020 US Open, Azarenka reached a Grand Slam final seven years after she was last there, fittingly beating the player she had lost to in 2013 – Serena Williams. Her 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 win was her first over the American in 11 Major meetings.
Even though the player considered by many to be the greatest in tennis missed out on another shot at a record 24th Grand Slam title, Azarenka’s win felt like a win for the sport and the hundreds of women who play it.
Just like in the semi-final on Thursday, where she dropped the first game and set to Serena in a brutal 6-1 drubbing, last month, in her first match since tennis’ restart, she had lost to a 40-year-old Venus Williams in the first round of Lexington in straight sets.
But the 31-year-old has never given up hope, not when she had to take a break, not when she was embroiled in a custody battle that prevented her from playing, not even when her results were far from satisfactory.
She bounced back from the loss to Venus to go on an 11-match winning streak on the New York hard-courts, lifting the relocated Cincinnati title – her first since becoming a mother. She bounced back from the disastrous first set against Serena to mount a counterattack so astonishing that it felt like a different player had turned up between sets.
Lifting her game
In the first set, Williams had hit 12 winners to just four for Azarenka. In the second, the Belarusian upped it to score 12 winners to match her opponent and in the decider, had eight to Williams 11.
But Azarenka, who made 10 unforced errors in the first set, dramatically reduced it just ONE in the second set and six in the third to Williams 12.
To put it in simple words, Azarenka beat a Serena at her best by raising her own game, instead of the American’s last few Grand Slam exits where she was completely outplayed. She outpunched and outlasted a player who didn’t do much wrong either.
It was the clean ball-striking, propped up by the calm mindset even after dropping the first, that felt both old and altogether new. The solid return game and well-cut winners reminded of the swift player of old. The blank face during changeovers and Serena’s medical timeout felt like a new facet.
There were enough chances to stumble. She was a breakpoint down in the first game of the second set. She committed a double fault while serving for the match at 5-3, 30-15. She had served for the championship at the 2012 US Open before Serena stormed back to take the decider 7-5.
Asked about the moment, she said that was not going through her mind at all. But then came a more revealing insight. “Then I was young, my ego was way too big. Now it’s a little smaller, and the result’s are coming,” she said with what must have been a smile (the on-court interviews are conducted with a facemask on).
From a young player with the world at her feet, Azarenka has matured into an underrated fighter who keeps bouncing back from setbacks. In New York, she is shelling out for a private residence to stay with her three-year-old son Leo and her mother instead of the player hotel. She has been seen watching matches with Leo at the Arthur Ashe and was shown dancing in her locker room suite while the first semi-final was on.
This lack of pressure as an unseeded player – although she is the world No 27 after the Cincinnati title and is set to break back into the top 20 – coupled with the time away from the tour to build on fitness and fortitude seems to be working wonders.
Her final test will come against another former world No 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka. It will be a rematch of the Cincinnati final where the Japanese player gave her a walkover.
In the last couple of weeks, she has beaten seeded players such as Jo Konta, Donna Vekic, Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Muchova, Elise Mertens (for the loss of just one game) and now Serena. Whether she can add one more name to the list or no, Azarenka’s New York run remains a terrific achievement and a reminder of a player who’s a former world No 1 but a perpetual fighter.