You try playing elite professional tennis when so much of your world is unresolved. That is what Serena Williams faced in San Jose when she played Jo Konta a very short while after learning — earlier that day — that the person who shot her sister had been released. Serena had to process the emotions which come with a difficult moment. Playing tennis is not what she needed to be doing that night, but she honored her commitment and lost. She then didn’t play the following week in Canada to deal with everything which was running through her mind. She spoke publicly about the importance of realizing that it’s okay to feel bad and to acknowledge the difficulty of life. Processing complicated and negative feelings is hard. It is okay to step away when the mind and heart need healing, space, or both.
You try playing elite professional tennis when so much of your world is unresolved.
Victoria Azarenka lives in a world beyond her control, at least in connection to the most important part of her life: her son, Leo. A protracted custody battle, which tears at the fabric of relationships and is a searing, wrenching thing to go through, hovers over Azarenka’s head. Physical injuries represent their own substantial challenge, but enormously stressful life events — given the pressure they exert on the mind — are in some ways even more of an enemy for professional athletes. Elite sports require profound clarity. The mind needs to get out of the way so that the gifted human body can do wondrous things when it is time to play ball. It is hard — if not impossible — to assess Azarenka as a tennis player when such a central part of her life exists in a state of bitterly frustrating uncertainty. Having to carry around that burden, the burden of not knowing, is hell for anyone. For an athlete, the strain is acute and the distraction is hard to dismiss.
Anything connected to Azarenka’s tennis can’t be completely walled off from the reality of her life and her motherhood. That has to be absorbed and internalized.
With that prelude over, here is where Azarenka’s tennis seems to reside after Friday’s loss to Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open: It resides in closer proximity to the level Vika wants — and needs — to establish.
The down-the-line backhand is there. The volleying and court sense are there. For brief stretches of play, Azarenka showed the laser-focused groundstrokes and whole-court instincts which lifted her to two major titles and other major finals. On some occasions earlier this season, an Azarenka match offered very little reason for hope. This match against Stephens was different. It revealed a quality of play which, while inconsistent, could lead to bigger things and brighter possibilities in 2019.
If only that custody battle can be settled — and settled in a good way.
Azarenka created chances against Stephens. She arrived at break points or 15-30s on Sloane’s serve in the first set. She just couldn’t finish points in neutral rallies she had good opportunities to win. In the second set, she pounced on more break-point openings and forged a *4-3 lead, but she briefly lost focus and allowed an accomplished opponent, the defending U.S. Open champion, to swipe the set at the very end.
Azarenka conveyed the quality of a player who is still capable of returning to the top, but displayed the inconsistency of a player who knows she isn’t all the way back and has to take several steps to get there. The light can be seen at the end of the tunnel… but the tunnel is long.
With her 2018 season now over at the majors, Victoria Azarenka would love to be able to mentally decompress… but unresolved parts of her life won’t allow that to happen.
If the off-court resolution falls into place, Vika’s game might also fall into place in 2019. For the sake of tennis and Vika herself, let’s hope so.