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With ‘Little Steps,’ Victoria Azarenka Is Making a Deep Run

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Dinner had arrived within the player restaurant for Jessica Pegula’s coach, David Witt, nevertheless it didn’t include a spot within the Australian Open semifinals.

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

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

“No,” Witt replied quickly. “Vika played beyond well. We weren’t expecting that in any respect. That was her best match in a protracted time.”

Hardcourts, just like the ones at Melbourne Park, have long been Azarenka’s happiest hunting grounds. A former world No. 1, she won back-to-back Australian Opens in 2012 and 2013 and reached the U.S. Open final in each those seasons, losing classic matches to Serena Williams every time. In 2020, a resurgent Azarenka beat Williams in a U.S. Open semifinal and gave Naomi Osaka quite a tussle before losing in the ultimate.

Though a lot of Azarenka’s former rivals, including Williams, are retired, she has played on, juggling motherhood with the demands of a world tennis tour and attempting to concentrate on the challenges at hand as an alternative of what may need been.

Along with her ball-striking ability, athleticism and innate combativeness, Azarenka, 33, a 6-foot Belarusian, had looked set for a protracted run near the very top of the ladies’s game. But she was knocked back by depression, injuries and an prolonged custody dispute with Billy McKeague, the daddy of their son, Leo. The boy is now 6 and living with Azarenka and relatives in Boca Raton, Fla., and attending school.

“Obviously, he’s watching some matches, but he definitely wants his mom to be home,” Azarenka said in her on-court interview Tuesday.

After struggling through a few of her early matches in Melbourne — losing the opening set to Madison Keys within the third round by 6-1 — Azarenka clicked into a better gear against Pegula, the rising American who had not dropped a set on this tournament before their quarterfinal match.

“I’m very excited,” Azarenka said. “I feel like I definitely appreciate being on the court more now.”

She’s going to face one other tough project in a semifinal match Thursday against Elena Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion. Rybakina’s powerful and precise serve could provide quite a challenge for Azarenka, long one among the sport’s premier returners.

The 12 months’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

But Azarenka has often sounded more all for the method than the destination during this tournament. She said she has tried to coach herself to concentrate on “little steps” reasonably than her more traditional, results-based goals.

“I want to have patience,” she said. “Once you win big, it’s hard to be patient, so you ought to get the things going.”

She felt she didn’t get ahead of herself on Tuesday, and though Pegula and Witt kept expecting Azarenka’s form to dip, she maintained a high level after the torrid start, stuffed with deep groundstrokes and attacking flourishes, which gave her a 3-0 first-set lead.

“I feel like sometimes after I play her, she will go off a bit of bit due to how she plays, but tonight it doesn’t really feel like she went off in any respect,” Pegula said. “That just made it super tough. At the identical time, I feel like I gave her a number of unforced errors, a number of mistakes.”

Uncomfortable within the slower conditions with Laver Arena’s roof closed due to rain, Pegula needed to scrap for nearly every game she won, navigating six deuces before holding serve within the fourth game. Though she did break Azarenka at 5-3, Pegula dumped a brief shot into the online at 15-0 in the subsequent game that stopped her momentum as Azarenka broke back to win the set and take command of the match for good.

Pegula, 28, a late bloomer who overcame major hip and knee injuries early in her profession, is now 0-5 in Grand Slam singles quarterfinals, losing at that stage within the last three Australian Opens.

“Obviously I’m upset about tonight, but at the identical time, I’m putting myself in these positions to go deep in these tournaments,” she said. “I feel I’ve proven that. I’ve been super consistent.”

She continued: “Hopefully it comes together. I definitely need to do higher. I would like to do more.”

Azarenka can definitely relate. She has needed to battle her own perfectionist streak that sometimes left her overwrought and in tears during matches in her early years on tour. She has continued to be tough on herself and said that smashing rackets after a first-round defeat to Ekaterina Alexandrova in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last October was a recent low point.

“I felt like especially last 12 months my tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really mentally there,” she said. “I played with a number of fear and a number of anxiety, and it really was difficult to be brave and make the best decisions within the vital moments.”

Asked concerning the fears, she said: “Fears of failing is an enormous one. To not have the option to do what I would like to do. So subconsciously sometimes it stops you from doing it. I feel the purpose of being uncomfortable is horrifying. I’ve had panic attacks before.”

But, she said, she had worked rather a lot on her mind-set.

“Because while you achieve great success, sometimes you develop into conservative, and also you develop into more hesitant to try latest things,” she said. “This off-season, I used to be like: ‘You realize what? I’ll just be open-minded and take a look at latest things and put my head down and work hard.’”

The 2022 season was stuffed with unexpected challenges, similar to being among the many players from Belarus and Russia who were barred from playing at Wimbledon due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Azarenka, one among Belarus’s most outstanding athletes, has called for peace and said she was “devastated” by the war. She was also a part of the WTA Player Council, together with Pegula, that supported the choice to strip Wimbledon of the rankings points typically awarded on the tournament in retaliation for the ban.

Ukrainian players protested when Azarenka was included within the lineup for an exhibition ahead of last 12 months’s U.S. Open to boost funds for relief efforts in Ukraine. Azarenka didn’t participate within the event.

“It’s a really complicated and really delicate situation to administer,” said Maxime Tchoutakian, her coach. “She had a tough time, nevertheless it was a period that was difficult for a lot of players, and so they must try to administer it the very best they will.”

Azarenka has said that she has donated clothing to assist Ukrainian junior players and provided other financial support. The war continues, and it stays unclear whether Wimbledon will readmit Russians and Belarusians this 12 months. But Azarenka, seeded twenty fourth in Melbourne, on Tuesday looked particularly fit and focused: She was quick into the corners to defend but additionally decisive in moving forward and attacking to maintain Pegula from settling into the type of rhythm that suits her exquisite timing and flat hitting so well.

“I knew I even have to play fast, and I even have to not give her the chance to step in, and I even have to combine it up,” Azarenka said. “Because at hip level, there’s no one higher than Jess. She just doesn’t miss.”

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

It worked, and now, for the primary time in a decade, Azarenka is back in a semifinal on the Australian Open, the tournament she twice ruled and where her photo features within the tunnel of champions that players go through on their way into Laver Arena.

Her life has modified a lot since 2013, as Leo makes clear. He was along with her in Melbourne last 12 months, joining her on the podium at a news conference after one among her matches. But he has school commitments this 12 months and didn’t make the journey.

“A number of more days here, and I’ll be back,” Azarenka said to her son in her on-court interview after extending her stay along with her play.

“Truthfully,” Witt said, “I don’t think she could have played higher.”

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