WATCH—TC Live discusses Serena, Rafa and Sloane advancing at US Open:
NEW YORK—Victoria Azarenka is starting to find balance on the court again, as she adjusts to playing a full schedule.
The Belarusian competed at just a handful of events until the clay-court season because of a custody dispute involving her son, Leo. The summer hard-court season saw an increased workload.
“Obviously, I played Cincinnati, played Montreal,” said Azarenka, who also competed at San Jose. “I didn't feel like I wanted to play this much. I didn't really enjoy myself, because I feel like when you go through difficult times you sometimes have a very narrow focus on result only, and it's hard to look outside of that.
"That's where I caught myself, that really focusing on result. It didn't bring me joy of the journey, of experience. It really held me back, I feel like it held me back from improving or transitioning from practice to match. It's been really a struggle. But right now I feel happy on the court. I feel happy outside of the court. I feel that little by little.”
At the US Open, Azarenka appears to be gaining momentum. She crushed No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova, 6-1, 6-2, to reach the third round, and will face defending champion Sloane Stephens next.
The two played each other at Indian Wells, where Azarenka won in what was her first event of the season, and then again at Miami, where Stephens took a three-set victory on her way to the title.
“She's a very good player. I feel like she improved so much to be on the consistent level,” Azarenka said of Stepehns. “I think she's always been a very talented player. And now she's taking it one tournament at a time and really performing at a high level at every event.
"But I always thought she was very talented. So for Miami it was a good match. I think we played well. But I had my chances there. For me, it's going to be a great challenge.”
The Pick: Stephens
Not too long ago, Azarenka was at the peak of the women’s game. She hits the ball bigger and cleaner than everyone not named Serena Williams. She dominates her opponents with relentless offense.
But her opponent here is the fastest player in the tournament. Stephens is one of the quickest players the sport has seen, and is currently the game's best defender. She smothers opponents with her court coverage, forcing them to hit lines just to get the ball by her.
Azarenka has beaten Stephens three times before, but she has not beaten this version of Sloane. This is the new-and-improved Sloane, stronger physically and mentally. Do not miss this matchup between two of the sport's premiere athletes.—Cale Hammond
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