As Victoria Azarenka bared down one of the most significant victories of the past decade of her career, 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 felt like I did some interesting slices. You know what, 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 in the draw after tearing through her four prior opponents to reach her third consecutive Australian Open quarter-final without dropping a set. But on in an arena of great importance to Azarenka’s career, the pressure she imposed overwhelmed Pegula.
“She did exactly what she wanted to do,’’ said Pegula. “She was just executing it pretty well tonight. 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, Azarenka struggled with personal issues, including a custody battle, and she failed to consistently rediscover her level of old.
It finally seemed like Azarenka had hit a turning point when she reached the final of the US Open in 2020, but the momentum she hoped it would bring to her career never surfaced. This is just 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 issues to nerves and anxiety that followed her on-court during 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 kind of 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, that I’m doing.”
Azarenka’s Australian Open title in 2012 proved a defining moment in her career as she reached No 1 and embarked on a 26-match winning streak before defending her title the next year. During her second title run in 2013, a medical timeout during her semi-final match against Sloane Stephens became a controversial moment. The backlash and aftermath 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.
She continued: “I was thinking about it. It took me 10 fucking 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 player followed up 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.