A rivalry takes a different dimension

Christopher Clarey, New York Times News Service, Mar 10 2018, 21:56 IST
MOM WITH GOALS... Victoria Azarenka in action against Heather Watson at Indian Wells. The former No 1 has played in just two tournaments in the last 21 months.

The last time Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka played tennis in the high-rent stretch of desert in Indian Wells, they faced each other in the final of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. Azarenka won 6-4, 6-4.

Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically for both of them. The particulars differ, but they are both mothers now, each trying to square that new responsibility and daily delight with a long-standing ambition to remain tennis champion.

Both are far from that at the moment. Azarenka, who was ranked No 1 for a time in 2012 and 2013, has played just two tournaments in the past 21 months because of her pregnancy and a custody dispute and is now No 204. Williams, a longtime fixture at No 1, took more than a year off for her own maternity leave and has no official ranking. But both women still seek more competition, and more powerful big-match emotions.

"It was never a question for me," said Williams, 36. "The minute I realised that I was going to take some time off, I just wanted to stay fit and stay ready the best I could.

"It just wasn't my time to retire yet, even though it would have been a great way to retire. I just felt like my story wasn't over."

On Thursday night, in the main stadium at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Williams and Azarenka took turns resuming their remarkable tennis tales. And both emerged victorious in first-round, straight-set matches that were not quite that straightforward.

Williams went first, defeating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan. Azarenka then beat Heather Watson of Britain in a match that finished close to midnight.

"It was a little bit nerve-racking because I felt there was quite a bit of expectation," said Azarenka, 28. "Watching Serena, I thought she played really well, and seeing her fight out there, that's all I wanted to do. My focus was just to be out there and enjoy myself and not put too much pressure."

That is easier said than managed, of course, and there were plenty of gesticulations, two-toned grunts and withering glances as Azarenka struggled to close out the quick and erratic Watson in both sets.

Still, for someone who had not played a tour match since Wimbledon in July, there was much to feel sanguine about. "A week ago, I wasn't sure if I was going to be here today, and I won my first match in however long, so I'll take it," Azarenka said.

Williams was also doing her best to think of the big picture, as she did when she returned to competitive tennis last month as part of the US Fed Cup team. But she played only doubles and lost an essentially meaningless match after the US team had already clinched the first-round victory over the Netherlands.

Though far from her best in her opener, Williams gave big hints that the traditional pillars of her game remain intact. She can still crush groundstrokes, punish soft second-serves, strike aces to all four corners of the service box, and bare her teeth and find the lines under duress.

"I'm playing with nothing to lose; I only can gain," Williams said. "I could have been playing like that for years, but I really have nothing to lose right now, and it's a real joy to be out there. Sometimes I think about those moments I was in the hospital and not even realising how serious it was until later. Being able to come through that just makes me feel like no matter what happens, I'm capable of being strong. Whether I win or lose, there's so much more to my life."

Williams' husband, Alexis Ohanian, was in the stands Thursday night, but her daughter, who was a courtside regular at the Fed Cup matches, was not.

"I almost cried before the match," Williams said. "But playing at night really helped, because I know she goes to bed and goes to sleep, and if she's asleep, I can't play with her right now."

Azarenka's 14-month-old son, Leo, was not there, either. The custody fight in California with Leo's father, Billy McKeague, has been Azarenka's primary focus of late, restricting her travel with Leo outside the state. She withdrew from several events, including last year's US Open, the 2017 Fed Cup final in her native Belarus and the Australian Open in January. She said she intended to play in the Miami Open this month, but she would not discuss the details of the dispute with McKeague.

"I wouldn't wish that on anybody to go through what I've been going through, but it's part of life and there are blessings in these situations as well for me," she said.

"You know, I'm free," she continued, seeming to refer to her relationship with McKeague. "But it's definitely been and still is a really difficult situation to be in, and it's hard to only focus on playing tennis - and I probably will never just focus on playing tennis being a mom."

During her forced layoff, Azarenka dropped a significant amount of weight, altered her service motion and split with her coach, Michael Joyce. She has since hired Slava Konikov, a former men's tennis coach at Sacramento State University who was one of her childhood coaches in Belarus.

She said she did not see the missed tournaments as "lost time."

"I'm still 28 years old," she said. "And recently there are No 1s over 30, so I'm OK with that. I'm still young."

Williams, who was No 1 at 35, and Roger Federer, who is back at No 1 on the men's tour at 36, have indeed shifted the thinking on career timelines. Williams and Azarenka played each other in some of the best women's matches of the 2010s. That rivalry has changed somewhat, as they have become friends with much in common.

"We have another connection which is a lot bigger than tennis I think right now," Azarenka said. "But I think we both can easily say we can't wait to play against each other on some big stages."

On Thursday, they had to settle for sharing a stage in the California desert. But after all they have been through, it was a promising place to start.

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