It’s an exciting time to be a WTA fan as former world number one and two time Australian Open champion, Victoria Azarenka, has begun her anticipated return to competitive tennis this week on the grass courts of the Mallorca Open. The Belarusian Azarenka has been absent from the game for over a year as she was on maternity leave. It was last July when she announced that she was pregnant and later in December gave birth to her son, Leo. Her pregnancy news shocked the tennis world as she started the 2016 season in dominant form winning three titles, including the rare achievement of the Sunshine Double. Azarenka is looking to pick up where she left off, but she does not want her return to be referred to as a comeback. “It’s not really a comeback for me, it’s more starting a second part of my career,” Azarenka said. Her return to the tour, and second part of her career is welcomed and much needed by the WTA at a time where the top players have been lacking consistency and the tour is without its biggest star, Serena Williams, who is also on maternity leave.
How Was Her Return?
In her pre-tournament press conference, Azarenka said, “I really feel I haven’t reached my potential yet and I think I can be better,” which can be problematic for the rest of the field, but great for tennis. Azarenka has previously proven worthy of the most prestigious trophies the game has to offer but recreating that success will most definitely require improvement of her part. The last time Azarenka played a professional match was during last year’s Roland Garros, and the rust was evident in her first round Mallorca win over Riza Ozaki of Japan. There was no time to ease herself into the competition as Azarenka and Ozaki were forced to complete the match over two days after it was suspended due to darkness. Azarenka’s trademark fighting spirit was in full display as she saved three match points before posting her first win as a mother with a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(7) scoreline.
While at times Azarenka showed moments of brilliance, it was her inability to control her normally accurate groundstrokes that kept Ozaki competitive throughout the match. She finished the match with 30 winners and 41 unforced errors. In addition to her erratic play off the ground, it was also the serve that was letting her down. Azarenka was only able to win 58% of her first serves and was broken six times throughout the match. Her second round encounter with the 7th seed Ana Konjuh proved to be too much for Azarenka as her groundstrokes kept missing the lines, and her serve was nowhere to be found. Konjuh was able to defeat Azarenka posting a dominant 6-1, 6-3 win. While Azarenka’s return was cut short at the Mallorca Open, she will now have more time to prepare for Wimbledon by cleaning up her ground game and working on her serve.
What Was Different?
In her first tournament back, Azarenka’s world class tennis was all too familiar, but there were also some noteworthy differences on display. Tennis fans have been accustomed to seeing Azarenka swinging her Wilson racket on the court, but this time she was playing with a blacked out racket frame. This is normal behavior in the world of professional tennis when a player is making the switch from one racket brand to another. From the shape and appearance of the new frame, it is likely that Azarenka is playing with a blacked out Yonex racket, and will likely soon be confirmed after a contract deal has been established. It was not only the racket that was different; her service motion was visibly different as well. Azarenka’s biggest room for improvement has always been her serve; for a woman who is six feet tall, Azarenka has an underwhelming serve. It appears that her new coach Michael Joyce, former coach of Maria Sharapova, is looking to make her serve more rhythmic and thus eliminate her previously stiff motion. Judging by her first round serving stats, Azarenka will most definitely have to find the rhythm on her new service motion before facing the game’s elite.
What To Expect
It’s always difficult to predict what the future has in store, but if her feisty first round win is anything to go by, Azarenka has a pretty bright future ahead of her. While her future is easy to predict, it’s the present that will test her limits as a new mother and professional athlete. Azarenka will face challenges that most of her peers will be without, but as she has previously demonstrated, she tends to rise to the challenge. The last time we saw a top player returning to the game as a new mom was in 2009 when Kim Clijsters powered her way to the US Open title. It will be moments like Clijsters 2009 US Open win that will fuel Azarenka’s determination and competitive spirit. While most people predict a rapid return to the top of the game, there is reason to think Azarenka might need more time to navigate her life as a professional tennis player and a new mom. It will take a handful of tournaments before we see the same controlled aggression and clean ball striking that took her to the top of the game. In the meantime, expect Azarenka to provide us with quality, entertaining matches as she continues to navigate the second part of her career.