Azarenka at peace with herself and the clay

Time away from tennis this season has awakened a fresh outlook in the former world No.1

Victoria Azarenka, Roland-Garros 2020, practice©Cédric Lecocq / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Heading back to the drawing board time and again, four years had passed since Victoria Azarenka last contested a Grand Slam quarter-final.

Azarenka did not have a single second week showing at a slam in the two years since returning to the tour.

Any lesser player would have questioned if all the hard work to forge this comeback was worth it. Maybe the tennis gig had run its course.

Off-court struggles scuppered plans as recently as January, ruling out an Australian summer of tennis for the dual Grand Slam champion.

But it was during the tour’s Covid-19 hiatus the 31-year-old noticed a real change.

“I would say the last few years I had a lot of opportunities to test out my mental strength,” Azarenka told “I felt that I was able to handle that really well off court, then on court was more difficult.

“You just can't sometimes handle all the pressure that comes at you. I felt that maybe around June is where I started to feel like doing some new ways of approaching some situations.

“Then it kind of started from there, building up on that. I started to understand and feel myself better around June, end of June.”

To those on the outside her results alone pointed to a dramatic shift, while her persona on the practice court and in interviews suggested an Azarenka more at ease with the world.

Victoria Azarenka, Roland-Garros 2020, practice©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

A first Grand Slam final in seven years followed a title run at the Western & Southern Open, with her US Open semi-final defeat of Serena Williams avenging harrowing losses in the 2012 and 2013 finals.

The Belarusian had never beaten Williams at a major in 10 prior meetings.

A decision to contest the US hard-court swing proved telling.

“Surprised? No, because I don't look at it that way,” Azarenka said. “Results are a confirmation of hard work.

“I think what I'm more proud of, not surprised, in the way that I'm able to sustain that level that I've been able to achieve personally, and kind of even progress [from] that.

“That's the most important for me. Tennis on the court is just a bonus really. The way I feel about myself, the way I feel off the court, that's my real moment that I'm really proud of.”

After coming up short in a three-set final to Naomi Osaka, Azarenka’s intensity did not dip as she made the switch to clay.

Wins over Venus Williams and a double-bagel hiding of Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin came in Rome before a show of compassion and encouragement to Daria Kasatkina, who forced to withdraw during their third-round clash after yet another injury.

A close defeat to Garbiñe Muguruza in the Rome quarter-finals only softened Azarenka’s relationship with a surface she had long held serious inhibitions about.

“I feel like especially from last year, I felt that I finally start to find my rhythm, actually enjoying myself playing on clay, sliding, instead of cussing the clay out every single time I play on it,” Azarenka said.

“I was actually looking forward to playing. I feel like I enjoy better, I adjust better… The second year I enjoy it after 16 years on tour. It's about time to make some evolution on clay."