Victoria Azarenka said it has taken her 10 years to get over the criticism she faced following her last Australian Open semi-final after finally making it back to the last four.
The Belarusian defeated Jessica Pegula 6-4 6-1 in the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park on Tuesday and is putting together her best run since winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
The second of those proved controversial, with Azarenka taking a long medical time-out after failing to serve out a semi-final win over Sloane Stephens, who was then only 19.
Clinical from start to finish 👏
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2023
Azarenka broke in the next game to clinch victory and told the crowd: “I almost did the choke of the year. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed realising that I’m one step from the final and nerves got into me for sure.”
Azarenka later said she had pain in her chest and took the medical time-out for that reason but she faced a barrage of criticism for her actions before going on to defeat Li Na in the final.
Asked about the incident, a fired-up Azarenka said: “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 at night because people didn’t want to believe me.
“There is sometimes, I don’t know, an incredible desire for a villain and a hero story that has to be written. But we’re not villains, we’re not heroes, we are regular human beings that go through so many, many things.
“Assumptions and judgments, all those comments, are just s**t because nobody’s there to see the full story. It didn’t matter how many times I said my story, it did not cut through.
“I was thinking about it. It took me 10 f***ing years to get over it. I finally am over that.”
The 33-year-old produced a fine display to defeat third seed Pegula – who was the highest-ranked player left – and will take on Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the last four.
Azarenka said dealing with feelings of anxiety had been crucial to her resurgence, with the 24th seed reaching just her second semi-final at any grand slam since 2016.
“I don’t think you recognise it right away,” she said. “I think it builds up until you hit a pretty bad spot where nothing kind of makes sense. You feel kind of lost.
“I was at the point where I couldn’t find anything that I feel good about myself, not even one sentence. I broke a few rackets after my match in Ostrava (in October). That was a very tough moment for me.
“From then, I tried to take it more simple. I started with not trying to be positive, just trying to be neutral, not to go negative.
“Accepting the anxiety that I have. Accepting the fear that I have. Kind of working through it. That was step by step.
“I kept trying to go a little step forward, another challenge, another step forward.”
Pegula was playing in her fifth slam quarter-final – including three in a row here – but has yet to make it further.
— wta (@WTA) January 24, 2023
The American praised Azarenka, saying: “That was a tough match. I think she played at a high level the entire time.
“I felt like every time I tried to get a little bit of momentum, I just wasn’t able to really grab a hold of it. I don’t think I played my best, but I also think she played very well from the start.”
Of another quarter-final loss, Pegula added: “I don’t really think it had much effect on me. Obviously afterwards, now, it sucks because I wish I could have made a semi, but it is what it is.”