By Ros Satar
- Victoria Azarenka [WC] def. Heather Watson 6-4 6-2
- Opens up about stress and struggles of custody battle for son Leo
INDIAN WELLS, USA – Victoria Azarenka marked her comeback on International Women’s day as she cruised past Heather Watson, before opening up about some of the struggles she has faced in the custody battle for her son.
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Victoria Azarenka [WC] def. Heather Watson 6-4 6-2
Despite looking relaxed and cheerful in her practice earlier in the evening, on the court things took a very different turn for Heather Watson, as she was drawn against former two-time champion Victoria Azarenka.
International Women’s day had already seen another two time champion in Serena Williams mark her own triumphant comeback after the birth of her daughter Olympia last year.
Just as Williams had, Azarenka was soaking up the atmosphere as soon as she took to the court with a beaming smile on her face. It had been a huge struggle to even get to this point.
There was absolutely no signs of rust for the Belarusian, who last took to a court in July last year. Having made what looked like a solid return on the grass, trouble was brewing behind the scenes with her partner and father of her son, Billy McKeague, and since then an unholy custody mess has ultimately prevented Azarenka from leaving the state with her son in tow.
Here we are though in Indian Wells, and Azarenka merely picked up where she left off, as she jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the Brit. Watson may have started slow, but once she settled into her range, she picked up the pace, giving the Belarusian pause for thought as she ran off four games in a row. However Azarenka stopped the rot by breaking Watson for the first set.
The second set started as a mirror of the first with Azarenka breaking Watson again at the start of the set. The pivotal point was an 18-minute match with Watson bringing up seven break points, but of course crucially not being able to convert of any chance to get a foot in the door. Watson did her best to fend off two match points succumbing to a third.
After the match, Azarenka described that game in particular: “It was very important because I felt I could have done a lot more in that game and I did on the important moments. I did step up and I played well and I served well but there are moments where I was too tense. I was playing too short and I wasn’t using the shots that I was using before when I was winning 4-1 and 3-0 and having opportunities.
“So those are the things definitely when you don’t play a lot you don’t sometimes know how to do it the right moment and I need to get that feeling back for sure. But you know a week ago I wasn’t sure if I’m going to be here and today I won my first match in however long so I’ll take it.”
She admitted that the emotions had been high as she walked on to court as well. Having only played two tournaments last year, that and indeed meeting the press once more helped her realise she needed to put a few things into perspective.
She said: “It was so many mixed emotions honestly. Like the last couple of days and overall just being here – been so many awkward emotions just to come here and so many people were surprised to see me – it’s not awkward bad, it’s awkward good but it’s still awkward.
Going on the court, probably the hardest thing to do is to lower my expectations today and to just go out there and try to enjoy the moment, for once be nice to yourself on the court. Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re not doing what you think you can do. So that was definitely a battle in my head to make that work.”
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‘Days I couldn’t even get out of bed’
Azarenka was remarkably candid about the extent of her struggles in the custody battle over her son Leo. Although she is trying to take what positives she can from her enforced time away from the tour, it has taken its toll on the 28-year-old.
“[Those months] weren’t fun – let’s say that. 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 that – I’m free. But it’s definitely and it still a 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 mum. But overall having extra unnecessary things – that probably doesn’t make it easier. But I wouldn’t say it’s a lost time – it’s unfortunate and it’s not a great time but it’s part of life, and I’m still 28 years old and recently there are No. 1s over 30 so I’m ok with that.”
She continued: “There [were] days unfortunately that I couldn’t even get out of bed but I did my best, I can try to do consistent. It’s not easy but I need to start somewhere. I think here, playing matches and playing doubles it’s a good start for me.”
It has not gone unnoticed that Azarenka has trimmed down quite considerably, albeit looking a lot less harsh than an earlier instagram photo that showed her looking very gaunt.
She admitted: “I was down to 130-135lbs and I looked scary so that’s not the route that I want to go. My body needs to be strong and I want to continue to improve that.”
It may only be two tournaments for now, but Azarenka is not looking to just make up the numbers at Indian Wells and Miami – but it remains to be seen if she can make a full return to the sport she loves.
Azarenka will face US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open.
Main Image: Jimmie48 Tennis Photography
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