Matt Zemek

Life’s cycles of beginnings and endings emerge in ways which are both familiar and unexpected. As normal as the changing of the seasons might be — either from winter to spring or from North American hardcourts to European clay — the changing of circumstances often puts athletes in very new positions.

Such is the case for Victoria Azarenka heading into Madrid and Rome this year.

Cast aside the point that Azarenka’s ability to compete in Europe was no sure thing — that part of Azarenka’s immensely complicated off-court life was its own separate drama. It had implications for her tennis career but was not something Azarenka, as a tennis player, could do anything about. So much of Azarenka’s life over the past two years has had little to do with her athletic prowess. The difficulty of a complicated life, set against the backdrop of the human condition and its endless complexities, got in the way of Azarenka’s tennis ambitions. There wasn’t much Vika could do except patiently cope with the circumstances and care for her son to the fullest extent that she could.

Now that Azarenka will be able to play in Europe — with her son along for the journey — another WTA career newly graced by motherhood will try to sprout from red clay in a European springtime.

While most of the tennis world focuses (quite understandably) on the new world faced by Serena Williams, many quiet but real facts about Azarenka have flown under the radar in 2018. One central fact is that she has not played in six of the last seven major tournaments. Another is that with the sole exception of Wimbledon, Vika did not play any of the 14 most important WTA tournaments in 2017 (the four majors, the nine Premier Mandatory/5 events, and the WTA Finals). Azarenka’s forced (unchosen) absence from the Australian Open, plus Serena’s return to the tour at Indian Wells and her subsequent blockbuster matchup with Naomi Osaka in Miami, took a lot of the spotlight off Azarenka. Even though she made the Miami semifinals, the lack of an Australian Open result (of any kind) removed a sense of completeness from the winter hardcourt season.

Only now, with Madrid as the starting point, does Azarenka have the ability to construct a proper buildup through a surface-specific portion of the season, on the path to a major tournament. She hasn’t been able to do that in two years, because her 2017 Wimbledon represented a small island of grass tennis surrounded by very little tennis activity. It has been two years since Azarenka last experienced a genuinely substantial tennis cycle of weekly and season-to-season competition.

One can more clearly understand why the changing of the seasons — something so natural in life and tennis — doesn’t mean this next period in Azarenka’s career will be ordinary or commonplace. It is anything but.

It is now up to Azarenka — from this chaos and clutter, the products of many forces beyond her control — to create a new sense of order and stability. Perhaps being in Serena’s shadow will make this process easier for her… and perhaps that last assertion about being in Serena’s shadow is utter psychobabble as well. What is certain and clear is that in a world dominated by uncertainty and a lack of clarity, Victoria Azarenka has an opportunity to make the tennis court a special place once again.

No one knows for sure how smoothly this process of restoration will proceed, but the mere fact that Azarenka has a chance to let her tennis do the talking is something she surely won’t take for granted. That is the most exciting and reassuring aspect of a career which will begin again in the coming days and weeks.

Azarenka knows something about giving birth. In this European spring of 2018, she will try to create a new kind of nativity inside the white lines of a tennis rectangle.


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