It is rather crazy to think that Victoria Azarenka won her maiden Grand Slam triumph came just over eight years ago. It was on that very day where Azarenka was coming up against a formidable rival in Maria Sharapova, giving away lots in experience, but she played some breathless tennis that match, showing very little fear in unchartered territory and rallying toward the top of the WTA rankings for the first time in her career.
That 2012 season would prove to be one of the most memorable seasons for the Belorussian. She was at the peak of her powers at that point. She went on a 26-match unbeaten run at the beginning of the year, sustaining those great results as good as anyone on the hard courts for quite a long period of time. To be honest, she was one of the few players that could match Serena Williams on a tennis court. For a while was the sole player that was pushing Williams’ limits on every surface.
What were Azarenka’s main strengths on a tennis court and what made her so tough to topple then? First and foremost, she played with a feared arrogance, showed very little let up or reprieve when she got her momentum going, and there were very few notable weaknesses to both her game and to her mental game when she had that confidence of results to draw upon. She was–and still is–by far one of the best returners of serve in the world in the women’s game, not only making difficult returns look easy, but also manufacturing deep strong returns of serve consistently. On the WTA we are blessed with quite a few good returners, but when most tennis fans speak highly of a good striker of a tennis ball on return most will mention Azarenka’s qualities quite quickly.
That meant she had plenty of time to work with to take control of points, stay in enviable positions in the rally, and then suffocate her opponent with the strong, threatening aggressive groundstrokes that followed. She wasn’t only just a good returner, but she found a way of breaking down her opponent’s game with the great work she was doing off the ground. Possessing an absolutely technically-brilliant double-handed backhand that very rarely fell to pieces, and then maintaining her aggressive court position on the forehand to take time away. She gave absolutely nothing away both mentally and from the baseline, and she was riding a wonderful wave of momentum for quite some time, backing up the 2012 Australian Open title win by making another major hard court final in Flushing Meadows, once again staying true to the rivalry and pushing Williams again by serving for the title, but coming up short. She’d then go on to defend her Australian Open title the following year, and continued to strengthen her reputation as one of the best players in the world at the time.
It’s been a very up-and-down trajectory in the years since. One of the major drawbacks to Azarenka’s illustrious career is really the accumulation of injuries she’s sustained, a lot of them freak injuries, and many of them coming at the worst times in her career. One in particular that comes to mind is the knee problem she suffered at the 2013 Wimbledon, where she had to pull out in what proved to be one of the most open fields at that time. Even more so than usual. It was an opportunity missed, and with Azarenka’s confidence being sky high she’d have fancied her chances even on the grass of Wimbledon, where she’s a two-time semifinalist.
Azarenka may have had her battles with fitness on-court, but she’s also had some wonderful moments off-court, giving birth to son Leo in December of 2016 and now very much determined to get back to those lofty heights and set that example both on and off court for Leo as he watches on.
I think for Azarenka herself the road to the back to the top has been a quite difficult one. Dealing with a custody battle away from tennis, and then desperately trying to make her way back on to the tour to do what she loved, and what had very much been her life for well over a decade of her life. What really has been missing from the Azarenka game to prevent her from taking the step to the Top-10 and being the player she once was though?
As ever it is a hard thing to really assess and break down. One obvious problem, technically-speaking, is the ongoing torment she’s had with the serve. There were moments in her career where she got to grips with that shot for temporary phase. She adjusted the service motion numerous times over the course of her career, with many coaches trying to go in different directions with what best fitted the Belorussian, sometimes to her detriment. And on a bad day it is certainly a shot that could lead to her serve being broken two or three times in a set quite comfortably. The return has stayed the same–still a threat, still a strength, still something opponents will be wary of, but with the serve disintegrating like it is it leaves so much pressure for the return of serve to deliver that much more.
On that top of that, Azarenka’s had so many problems with the forehand. It’s the weaker side, and always has been, but that shot has got worse as she’s returned to the tour. Not only giving too much away in the form of unforced errors, but it lacks way too much depth to make her more competitive at times. As she’s returned to the Top-100 it is certainly a room for improvement and would allow her to gain a stranglehold on baseline rallies if she got that under control.
Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that it has been a long time since Azarenka has been at the pinnacle of the sport. It’s Now over four years since she won the Sunshine Double, and seven years since she won a Major title. At times it felt like she was wearing an invincibility cloak on court, barely flinching during points, coping with the pressure impressively, but now the field is very competitive on the WTA. With a combination of experienced players in the Top-10 and the arrival of some of the youth winning major titles early in their career when you look at likes of Jelena Ostapenko, Bianca Andreescu, and Naomi Osaka to name a few. Here there a players playing a similar fearless brand of tennis in the baby stages of their tennis life, and we no longer see the three Big 3 of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Azarenka herself sweeping up most of the titles and wins each week on tour.
Can Azarenka ever get back to her best? It would be something that I’d like to see and would be a good story to see a former champion fight through some tough moments to find their place in the sun one final time. I think it is dangerous to ever write off someone who has the experience on their side and knows what it takes to win the big trophies, that is something that helps Azarenka’s cause. But I’d have to the serve improved dramatically which would be tough to do at this point in her career, I’d have to see a service rhythm that she’d feel confident enough to settle with, as the consistent chopping and changing hasn’t helped her at all. And the most important thing of all is the health. Azarenka needs that run of good feeling on court to see if that momentum can take her places once again.
Main Photo from Getty.