Rejuvenated Azarenka problem solving with a smile

 - Alex Sharp

The former world No.1 has surged into title contention at the US Open with an eight-match winning streak.

Victoria Azarenka smiling at Roland-Garros 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

There is no hyperbole here; Victoria Azarenka is officially back and ready to make a major move once again.

The two-time Australian Open champion ruled Melbourne in 2012-13, reaching the US Open final in both those seasons too.

Game rebuild

Fast forward to late 2016 and the Belarusian took time out after childbirth and has since incrementally had to rebuild her game, confidence and all-court dynamism.

The 31-year-old has rediscovered a ruthless streak in New York, swatting her countrywoman Aryna Sabalenka aside 6-1, 6-3 at the US Open, prior to booking a fourth round ticket with a straight sets passage past Polish prodigy Iga Swiatek.

It’s the problem solving which really transfixes the world No.27.

I think it's just with experience you say ‘Okay, I've been through this drill before, maybe in different circumstances, but let me try to figure it out,’” said Azarenka, back in the Last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time since her comeback at Wimbledon 2017.

“Find solutions rather than looking of what's not working“

“I think maturity comes on the court, off the court, where you're able to handle pressure moments better, where you're able to draw a different perspective in a tough moment.

“I think certainly I've been doing that really well, which I'm very happy about, to find solutions rather than looking of what's not working or what should I do to be better. It's really just about focusing on you know how to do things, put my head down, stay calm, and just execute.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by the Azarenka resurgence, the Belarusian built momentum on the same courts of the US Open, by lifting the relocated Cincinnati Premier 5 trophy a week before.

That’s a first WTA title in four years and the former world No.1 is reaping the rewards from a renewed perspective on the sport.

The movement is sharp, a key component of Azarenka’s recent renaissance post lockdown, pushing up the court to dictate play.

I think it's about, first of all, being physically able to do that, especially on a consistent basis. I think when you are able to kind of stay on the baseline and apply that pressure, it's a lot of physical work so you have to be prepared. I worked really hard on that, to be able to do that,” insisted the two-time US Open finalist.

Victoria Azarenka at the 2018 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Studying her game in lockdown

“It’s really about understanding, kind of feeling the game a little bit. I'm able to generate a lot of power and redirecting the ball with my movement. I've just worked on that.

“Kind of understanding, again, what are my weapons, really start to work and execute them better.”

It sounds like Azarenka has really been studying her game in lockdown, whilst re-evaluating her approach.

The 31-year-old faces another up-and-coming star in the shape of No.20 seed Karolina Muchova on Monday.

Stay on her track and have fun

“I think it's going to be really exciting, to be honest. She's definitely had some really good matches here. It's going to be exciting. I'm really looking forward to the challenge, trying to find a solution again,” declared Azaenka, into the second week at the US Open for the first time since 2015.

“I think it's going to be a great opportunity to play against another young player. They are very dangerous. I need to stay on my track and have fun.”

It’s that enjoyment factor which is standing out so prominently. Yes, the movement has improved, yes, the court positioning is aggressive and commanding, but the fiercest of competitors is now able to duel with a smile.

Happiness on and off the court

I feel like I've been always passionate, but the joy of playing and kind of accepting the process, all of the good and bad in the process, I have never done that before in my career, even when I was No. 1, when I was winning Grand Slams,” admitted Azarenka.

“I was never able to reach that level of happiness on the court, joy on the court.”

Happiness on and off the court, Azarenka’s play is sure to bring smiles to all those watching too.