As Victoria Azarenka wore down one of her most significant victories of the last decade, her stratospheric level provided a reminder of why she has achieved so much. Azarenka streaked into the baseline, relentlessly taking the ball early, and she applied relentless, suffocating pressure.
Her unyielding intensity resulted in a huge victory as the two-time Australian Open champion toppled Jessica Pegula, the third seed, 6-4, 6-1 to return to the semi-finals for the first time since 2013.
“I knew I had to play fast, I’m not going to give her an opportunity to step in, I have to mix it up,” she said. “I made some interesting slices. I thought, ‘You’re doing it right. Even if it looks like shit, it’s fine. It’s the right way to do it.'”
Pegula had been one of the most in-form players after tearing through his four opponents to reach his third consecutive Australian Open quarter-final without dropping a set. But in an arena of major importance to Azarenka’s career, the pressure she imposed overwhelmed Pegula.
“She did exactly what she wanted,” Pegula said. “She just executed it pretty well. Hitting the ball deep, taking it early, changing the direction of the ball.”
A decade after the days when Azarenka reached world No. 1 and battled Serena Williams in the biggest finals, such sights have been rare. After taking maternity leave in 2016 and giving birth to her son, Leo, she struggled with personal issues, including a custody battle, and failed to consistently rediscover her old level.
Azarenka appeared to have hit a turning point when she reached the 2020 US Open final, but the boost she hoped it would bring never materialised. It is the second time she has reached the quarter-finals of a grand slam since 2016 and her second slam semi-final since 2013.
Azarenka attributes some of her recent problems to nerves and anxiety that followed her on the court last season. She said she was not mentally prepared to play tennis at a high level, too afraid to fail. After the game, the 33-year-old was passionate and honest about the journey it took to feel okay on the pitch.
“I don’t think you’ll recognize it right away,” she said. “It builds until you hit a pretty bad place where nothing makes sense. You feel a little lost. I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything that felt good about myself, not even one sentence.
“I broke a couple of rackets after my match in Ostrava (where she lost in the first round in October). It was a very hard moment for me.”
Since then, she has worked on learning to process the feelings and thoughts she has in pressured and stressful situations. “I kept trying to go one small step forward, one more challenge, one more step forward. I learned how to start building a process that is step by step instead of jumping to conclusions in the situation, jumping to a result or to the goal and really focus on step by step, which is quite difficult to do. It takes a lot of work, daily work”
Azarenka’s title here in 2012 proved to be a defining moment in her career as she reached No. 1 and began a 26-match winning streak before successfully defending her title. During the second title run, a medical timeout during her semifinal against Sloane Stephens became controversial. The backlash left mental scars that it has taken her a decade to move on from.
“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through in my professional career, the way I was treated after that moment, the way I had to explain myself until 10.30pm because people wouldn’t believe me.” she said. “I thought about it. It took me 10 years to get over it. I’m finally over it.”
Ten years after her last Australian Open semi-final, Azarenka will face Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina after the Kazakh followed up her fourth-round victory over world No.1 Iga Swiatek by dominating former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6- 2, 6-4 to reach his second grand-slam semi-final.