As Victoria Azarenka bore down on one of her most significant victories of the past decade, her stratospheric level provided a reminder of why she has achieved so much. Azarenka prowled inside the baseline, relentlessly taking the ball early and she imposed incessant, suffocating pressure.
Her unyielding intensity resulted in an enormous win as the two-times 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 have to play fast, I have to not give her opportunity to step in, I have to mix it up,” she said. “I did some interesting slices. I was like: ‘You’re doing the right thing. Even if it looks like crap, it’s fine. It’s the right way to do it.’”
Pegula had been one of the most in-form players after tearing through her four opponents to reach her third consecutive Australian Open quarter-final without dropping a set. But in an arena 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 pretty well. Hitting the ball deep, taking it early, changing the direction of the ball.”
A decade on from the days when Azarenka reached No 1 in the world and battled 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 old.
It seemed Azarenka had hit a turning point when she reached the final of the US Open in 2020, but the boost she hoped it would bring never surfaced. This is the second time she has reached the quarter-final 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-court last season. She said she was not mentally prepared to play high-level tennis, too afraid of failure. Post-match the 33-year-old was passionate and frank about the journey it took to feel OK on the court.
“I don’t think you recognise it right away,” she said. “It builds up until you hit a pretty bad spot where nothing makes sense. You feel kind of lost. I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything that felt good about myself, not even one sentence.
“I broke a few rackets after my match in Ostrava [where she lost in the first round in October]. That was kind of a very tough moment for me.”
Since then she has worked on learning how to process the emotions and thoughts she has in high-pressure, high-stress situations. “I kept trying to go a little step forward, another challenge, another step forward. I learned how to start to build 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 focusing on step by step, which is pretty hard to do. It requires a lot of work, daily work”
Azarenka’s title here in 2012 proved a defining moment in her career as she reached No 1 and embarked on a 26-match winning streak before succesfully defending her title. During that second title run, a medical timeout during her semi-final against Sloane Stephens became controversial. The backlash left mental scars that have taken her a decade to move on from.
“It was one of the worst things that I’ve ever gone 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 didn’t want to believe me,” she said. “I was thinking about it. It took me 10 years to get over it. I finally am over that.”
Ten years after her last Australian Open semi-final, Azarenka will face the Wimbledon champion, Elena Rybakina, after the Kazakh followed her fourth-round win over Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, by dominating the former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4 to reach her second grand-slam semi-final.