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

MELBOURNE, Australia — Dinner had arrived in the player restaurant for Jessica Pegula’s coach, David Witt, but it did not come with a spot in the Australian Open semifinals.

Pegula, who was the highest-seeded player left in the women’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 well,” someone said, using Azarenka’s nickname.

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

Hardcourts, 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 both those seasons, losing classic matches to Serena Williams each 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 final.

Though many of Azarenka’s former rivals, including Williams, are retired, she has played on, juggling motherhood with the demands of an international tennis tour and attempting to focus on the challenges at hand instead of what might have been.

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

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

After struggling through some of her early matches in Melbourne — losing the opening set to Madison Keys in the third round by 6-1 — Azarenka clicked into a higher gear against Pegula, the rising American who had not dropped a set in 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 will face another tough assignment 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 of the game’s premier returners.

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

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But Azarenka has often sounded more interested in the process than the destination during this tournament. She said she has tried to train herself to focus on “little steps” rather than her more traditional, results-based goals.

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

She felt she did not 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, full of deep groundstrokes and attacking flourishes, which gave her a 3-0 first-set lead.

“I feel like sometimes when I play her, she can go off a little bit because of how she plays, but tonight it doesn’t really feel like she went off at all,” Pegula said. “That just made it super tough. At the same time, I feel like I gave her a lot of unforced errors, a lot of mistakes.”

Uncomfortable in the slower conditions with Laver Arena’s roof closed because of rain, Pegula had to scrap for nearly every game she won, navigating six deuces before holding serve in the fourth game. Though she did break Azarenka at 5-3, Pegula dumped a short shot into the net at 15-0 in the next 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 career, is now 0-5 in Grand Slam singles quarterfinals, losing at that stage in the last three Australian Opens.

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

She continued: “Hopefully it comes together. I definitely want to do better. I want to do more.”

“I knew I have to play fast, and I have to not give her the opportunity to step in, and I have to mix it up,” Azarenka said. Credit…Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Azarenka can certainly relate. She has had 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 year my tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really mentally there,” she said. “I played with a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, and it really was difficult to be brave and make the right choices in the important moments.”

Asked about the fears, she said: “Fears of failing is a big one. To not be able to do what I want to do. So subconsciously sometimes it stops you from doing it. I think the point of being uncomfortable is scary. I’ve had panic attacks before.”

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

“Because when you achieve great success, sometimes you become conservative, and you become more hesitant to try new things,” she said. “This off-season, I was like: ‘You know what? I will just be open-minded and try new things and put my head down and work hard.’”

The 2022 season was full of unexpected challenges, such as being among the players from Belarus and Russia who were barred from playing at Wimbledon because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Azarenka, one of Belarus’s most prominent athletes, has called for peace and said she was “devastated” by the war. She was also part of the WTA Player Council, along with Pegula, that supported the decision to strip Wimbledon of the rankings points typically awarded at the tournament in retaliation for the ban.

Ukrainian players protested when Azarenka was included in the lineup for an exhibition ahead of last year’s U.S. Open to raise funds for relief efforts in Ukraine. Azarenka did not take part in the event.

“It’s a very complicated and very delicate situation to manage,” said Maxime Tchoutakian, her coach. “She had a hard time, but it was a period that was difficult for many players, and they have to try to manage it the best they can.”

Azarenka has said that she has donated clothing to help Ukrainian junior players and provided other financial support. The war continues, and it remains unclear whether Wimbledon will readmit Russians and Belarusians this year. But Azarenka, seeded 24th in Melbourne, on Tuesday looked particularly fit and focused: She was quick into the corners to defend but also decisive in moving forward and attacking to keep Pegula from settling into the sort of rhythm that suits her exquisite timing and flat hitting so well.

“I knew I have to play fast, and I have to not give her the opportunity to step in, and I have to mix it up,” Azarenka said. “Because at hip level, there’s nobody better 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 leaders in Melbourne in breaking opponents’ serves.

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

Her life has changed so much since 2013, as Leo makes clear. He was with her in Melbourne last year, joining her on the rostrum at a news conference after one of her matches. But he has school commitments this year and did not make the journey.

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

“Honestly,” Witt said, “I don’t think she could have played better.”

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