It has been 61/2 years since Victoria Azarenka was atop the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, courtesy of her back-to-back Australian Open victories and other high finishes.
Azarenka, who turned 30 on the final day of last month, continues her pursuit of No. 1 again, but with different priorities.
She left tennis in the middle of 2016 to give birth to a son, Leo, who arrived in December of that year. Azarenka was off the courts for nearly 12 months, and her ranking plummeted from No. 6 at the time to No. 978 when she returned in June of 2017.
Her ranking is No. 38, and tennis fans at Times Union Center will get an up-close look at the tennis standout from Belarus on Tuesday, Aug. 20, when she plays for Team World at the Aurora Games.
“Do I have the same drive?” she said during a news conference in the spring in Madrid. “Yes, I do, but it is not my priority anymore because, to be quite frank, if I had a choice, do I go to play a tournament or I spend time with my son, there is no choice. It’s going to be my son.
“But I have to work and I have to do things, so I do that sacrifice and I take that job seriously. When I do do my job is the limited time I’m away from my son, and I’m going to make sure I put 100 percent in doing the best I can. Otherwise I won’t be doing it.”
A winner of 20 WTA career singles and eight doubles titles, including two Grand Slams in each, Azarenka already has the credentials for the Tennis Hall of Fame.
For now, though, she plans to motor on. Azarenka has had some tough luck in Grand Slams this year. She ran into top-seeded Naomi Osaka in the second round of the French Open, and advanced to the third round of Wimbledon before losing to eventual champ Simona Halep.
“There is a difference between losing and not progressing and there’s a difference between losing and learning and then coming back and not repeating that again, so that’s where I’m at.” she said. “The beginning of the year was much more difficult where I couldn’t step up into the next match and try to do things better. It was frustration because I didn’t really feel comfortable.
“Now I do have a clear plan. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes I have to do a few more steps to do that. Of course, I want to get on a roll. The draws haven’t been too lucky to me, either, and I’m not expecting it to be like that, but I know the way I’ve been working, it’s coming.”
Though her last tournament victory came in March 2016, before she left the WTA tour, Azarenka made the final in April at Monterrey, losing to her Aurora Games teammate, Garbine Muguruza.
Azarenka’s height (6 feet), strong baseline strokes and mobility give her enough game that she should be able to play well into her 30s, and right now that seems to be her plan.
“I feel much better physically than when I was 20, 22,” she said. “When I was 18, 19, when somebody asked me how long you want to play, I said I will never play past 27, and that’s not the case.
“I feel that I have about five more years, till my son has to go to school, to give myself the best shot and give the best effort, because tennis is my job, it’s not my life. But I want to make sure that I have done everything I can in this time period, and we’ll see what happens. I’m not sure I’ll be playing past 35, but you never know.”
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Photo: Darron Cummings, AP