As Victoria Azarenka picked up one of her most important wins of the past decade, her stratospheric level was a reminder of why she has achieved so much. Azarenka prowled inside the baseline, relentlessly taking the ball early and she applied relentless, suffocating pressure.
Her unwavering intensity culminated in a huge win as the two-time Australian Open champion toppled third-seeded Jessica Pegula 6-4, 6-1 to return to the semis for the first time since 2013 .
“I knew I had to play fast, I had to not give him the opportunity to step in, I had to mix it all up,” she said. “I made some interesting slices. I was like, ‘You’re doing the right thing. Even if it looks like crap, it’s okay. It’s the right way to do it.
Pegula had been one of the fittest players ever after tearing up her four opponents to reach her third consecutive Australian Open quarter-final without dropping a set. But in an area of great importance to Azarenka’s career, the pressure she imposed overwhelmed Pegula.
“She did exactly what she wanted to do,” Pegula said. “She was just executing it well enough. Hit the ball deep, take it early, change the direction of the ball.
A decade after the day Azarenka reached world No. 1 and fought with 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 level of seniority.
It looked like Azarenka had reached a turning point when she reached the US Open final in 2020, but the boost she hoped it would bring never surfaced. It is the second time she has reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam since 2016 and her second Grand Slam semi-final since 2013.
Azarenka attributes some of her recent issues to the nervousness and anxiety that followed her on the pitch last season. She said she was mentally unprepared to play top level tennis, too scared of failure. After the game, the 33-year-old was passionate and outspoken about the journey it took to feel good on the pitch.
“I don’t think you recognize him right away,” she said. “It builds up until you reach a bad place where nothing makes sense. You feel a bit lost. I got to the point where I couldn’t find anything I liked, not even a sentence .
“I broke a few racquets after my game in Ostrava [where she lost in the first round in October]. It was kind of a very difficult time for me.
Since then she has worked to learn how to process the emotions and thoughts she has in high pressure and high stress situations. “I kept trying to take one small step forward, another challenge, another step forward. I learned to start building a step-by-step process instead of jumping to conclusions about the situation, jumping to an outcome or goal, and to 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 rose to No. 1 and embarked on a 26-match winning streak before successfully defending her title. During this second title race, a medical stoppage in his semi-final against Sloane Stephens became controversial. The backlash left mental scars that took him a decade to move on.
“It was one of the worst things I’ve experienced in my professional career, the way I was treated after that moment, the way I had to explain myself until 10:30 p.m. because people didn’t want to believe me,” she said. “I was thinking 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 win over world No. 1 Iga Swiatek by dominating the former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4 to reach her second Grand Slam semi-final.