After testing Serena, can Victoria Azarenka build momentum in Miami?

After testing Serena, can Victoria Azarenka build momentum in Miami?

The former world No. 1 has been playing some of the best tennis of her comeback.

In 2016, former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka swept through both legs of the “Sunshine Double.” After emerging triumphant in Indian Wells for the second time in her career with a straight-set win over Serena Williams, she went on to claim the Miami Open for the third time, defeating two-time Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova in the championship match.

Those two victories are also her most recent ones up to this point.

After shutting down her campaign in the second half of that year to have a child, Azarenka made her return to the WTA in 2017. Her comeback has been marked by starts and stops, but now, she’s been playing some of her best tennis in nearly two years.

And having had so much prior success in Miami, will South Beach be the site of a long-awaited title run?

Azarenka opens up play against former world No. 4 Dominika Cibulkova, a player with whom she’s had some battles in the past. After Cibulkova lost their first three matches in straight sets, six of their next seven encounters went the distance, with Azarenka winning four of them. The most recent time they were slated to face each other was in 2016, in Acapulco, with Cibulkova getting the pass by way of a walkover.

This year’s tournament in the Mexican city was where signs of a turnaround in Azarenka’s fortunes began to manifest. After a 1-3 start to 2019, which included an opening-round loss at the Australian Open—where she was a two-time winner—the Belarusian advanced to her first quarterfinal of the year. In the Acapulco opening round, she defeated this year’s surprise semifinalist in Melbourne, Danielle Collins, then followed that up with another comfortable win against Tatjana Maria. The young American Sofia Kenin stopped her singles run in three hard-fought sets, but she’d go on to capture the doubles crown, her first title in that discipline in eight years.

Azarenka carried that momentum with her to Indian Wells and easily dismissed her young countrywoman Vera Lapko in straight sets before facing her longtime rival Serena Williams. The 10th seed prevailed over Azarenka in what’s been acknowledged as one of the best WTA matches of the year, in their first meeting as mothers.

Last year in Miami, Azarenka enjoyed the most successful tournament run of her past two seasons by reaching the semifinals. En route to the final four, she defeated Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova, among others, before falling to eventual champion Sloane Stephens in three sets.

Provided she gets past Cibulkova in Miami this year, Azarenka would face the 19th-seeded Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia in the second round. Julia Goerges, the 15th seed, could be a third-round foe, with two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova lurking in the fourth.

It’s a difficult path to glory for Azarenka, but given how she’s navigating life on tour the past few weeks, it also represents an opportunity to make her boldest statement in years.