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With ‘Little Steps’, Victoria Azarenka takes a deep run

MELBOURNE, Australia — Dinner had arrived in the players’ restaurant for Jessica Pegula’s coach, David Witt, but it didn’t come with a berth in the Australian Open semi-finals.

Pegula, who was the highest-ranked player remaining in the women’s singles tournament at No. 3, had just been beaten convincingly, 6-4, 6-1, by her friend Victoria Azarenka at Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday.

“Vika played pretty well,” someone said, using Azarenka’s nickname.

“No,” Witt replied quickly. “Vika has played well beyond that. We didn’t expect that at all. It was his best game in a long time.

Hard courts, like those at Melbourne Park, have long been Azarenka’s most enjoyable hunting grounds. A former world No. 1, she won back-to-back Australian Opens in 2012 and 2013 and reached the US Open final in those two seasons, losing classic matches to Serena Williams each time. In 2020, a resurgent Azarenka beat Williams in the US Open semi-finals and gave Naomi Osaka a hard time before losing in the final.

Although many of Azarenka’s former rivals, including Williams, are retired, she has played, juggling motherhood and the demands of an international tennis tour and trying to focus on the challenges ahead rather than this. who could have been.

With her ball-striking ability, athleticism and innate fighting spirit, Azarenka, 33, a 6-foot-tall Belarusian, looked set for a long run near the pinnacle of women’s football. But she was pushed back by depression, injuries and a protracted custody dispute with Billy McKeague, the father of their son, Leo. The boy is now 6 years old and lives with Azarenka and her family in Boca Raton, Florida, and attends school.

“Obviously he’s watching some games, but he really wants his mum home,” Azarenka said during his on-court interview on Tuesday.

After struggling through some of her early matches in Melbourne – losing the opening set to Madison Keys in the third round by 6-1 – Azarenka kicked into high gear against Pegula, the rising American who hadn’t dropped a set in this tournament before their quarter-final match.

“I’m very excited,” Azarenka said. “I feel like I’m enjoying being on the pitch more now.”

She will face another tough task in a semi-final match on Thursday against reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. Rybakina’s powerful and precise serve could be a tall order for Azarenka, long one of the best returners in the game.

But Azarenka has often seemed more interested in the process than the destination at this tournament. She said she’s tried to train herself to focus on “small steps” rather than her more traditional, results-oriented goals.

“I have to have patience,” she said. “When you’re winning big it’s hard to be patient, so you want to get things done.”

She felt she hadn’t gotten ahead of herself on Tuesday, and although Pegula and Witt expected Azarenka’s form to drop, she maintained a high level after the torrid start, full of deep groundstrokes and offensive flourishes, which gave him a first 3-0-set lead.

“I feel like sometimes when I’m playing her, she can drift off a little bit because of the way she’s playing, but tonight I don’t really feel like she’s misplaced at all,” Pegula said. “It made things super difficult. At the same time, I feel like I gave him a lot of unforced errors, a lot of errors.

Uncomfortable in slower conditions with the Laver Arena roof closed due to rain, Pegula had to give up almost every game she won, sailing six twos before holding serve in game four. Although she broke Azarenka at 5-3, Pegula fired a short shot into the net at 15-0 in the following game which stopped her momentum as Azarenka fought back to win the set and take control of the match for real.

Pegula, 28, a late bloomer who overcame serious hip and knee injuries early in her career, is now 0-5 in Grand Slam singles quarterfinals, losing at this stage in the last three Australian Open.

“Obviously I’m upset about tonight, but at the same time I’m putting myself in these positions to go further in these tournaments,” she said. “I think I proved that. I’ve been super consistent.

She continued, “I hope this comes together. I really want to do better. I want to do more.

Azarenka can certainly understand. She had to struggle with her own perfectionist streak which sometimes left her overworked and in tears during matches in her early years on tour. She continued to be hard on herself and said breaking the rackets after a first-round loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova in Ostrava, Czech Republic last October was a recent low point.

“I felt like my tennis wasn’t bad especially last year, but I wasn’t really there mentally,” she said. “I played with a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, and it was really difficult to be brave and make the right choices in the important moments.”

Asked about her fears, she replied: “The fear of failing is important. Not being able to do what I want to do. So, subconsciously, sometimes it prevents you from doing it. I think the point of being uncomfortable is scary. I’ve had panic attacks before.”

But, she said, she had worked hard on her mindset.

“Because when you get big success sometimes you get conservative and you get more hesitant to try new things,” she said. “This offseason, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to be open-minded and try new things, put my head down and work hard.

The 2022 season has been full of unexpected challenges, like being among the players from Belarus and Russia who were banned from playing at Wimbledon due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Azarenka, one of Belarus’ hottest athletes, called for peace and said she was “devastated” by the war. She was also part of the WTA Player Council, along with Pegula, who supported the decision to strip Wimbledon of the ranking points usually awarded at the tournament in retaliation for the ban.

Ukrainian players protested when Azarenka was included in the lineup of an exhibition ahead of last year’s US Open to raise money for relief efforts in Ukraine. Azarenka did not participate in the event.

“It’s a very complicated and very delicate situation to manage,” said Maxime Tchoutakian, his coach. “She struggled, but it was a tough time for a lot of players, and they have to try to deal with it as best they can.”

Azarenka said she donated clothes to help Ukrainian junior players and provided other financial support. The war continues and it remains unclear whether Wimbledon will re-admit Russians and Belarusians this year. But Azarenka, seeded 24th in Melbourne, looked particularly fit and focused on Tuesday: She was quick around the corners to defend but also decisive in advancing and attacking to prevent Pegula from settling into the kind of pace that suits her timing. exquisite and to his flat strokes. so well.

“I knew I had to play fast, and I didn’t have to give him the opportunity to interfere, and I had to mix things up,” Azarenka said. “Because when it comes to the hips, there’s no one better than Jess. She just doesn’t miss it.

Azarenka sliced. She threw looping forehands, ripped swing cocksure volleys for winners and served more consistently than usual against a player who had been among the leaders in Melbourne to break up opponents’ serves.

It worked, and now, for the first time in a decade, Azarenka is back in the semi-finals at the Australian Open, the tournament she’s captained twice and where her picture is in the Champions Tunnel that players walk through to get to Laver Arena. .

His life has changed so much since 2013, as Leo points out. He was with her in Melbourne last year, joining her on the stand at a press conference after one of her matches. But he has school commitments this year and hasn’t made the trip.

“A few more days here, and I’ll be back,” Azarenka told her son during his on-court interview after extending his stay with his play.

“Honestly,” Witt said, “I don’t think she could have played better.”

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