After her lopsided loss to Halep, can Azarenka regain her former form?

After her lopsided loss to Halep, can Azarenka regain her former form?

The Two-time Australian Open champion has struggled against top players since her return from maternity leave in 2017.

LONDON—Leaving the Centre Court today after witnessing Simona Halep’s comprehensive 6-3, 6-1 triumph over Victoria Azarenka in a meeting between two women who have both resided at No. 1 in the world, I had the sinking feeling that Azarenka is destined to find herself permanently mired among the rank and file in her sport for the rest of her career. She will turn 30 at the end of the month, so age is not an issue. But her game is too often in disarray these days, and since returning to the sport as a mother her priorities are surely divided. Her decisive setback against Halep is another piece of evidence in a growing case against the notion that she will ever be back in the latter stages of a major.

To the dismay of so many observers who anticipated a hard-fought and high-quality clash between these two accomplished players and masterful strategists, anticipation did not match reality. Azarenka made an auspicious start. The world No. 40 seemed crystal clear in her mind about what she wanted to do tactically. She was going to probe and wait for the openings to either come forward and finish points with swing volleys, or seize the initiative from the backcourt and hit winners that were the product of controlled aggression. She plainly came on court with a plan and executed it well enough in the early stages.

After squandering a 15-40 lead in the second game that could have given her a 2-0 lead, Azarenka held at love in the third game. Her timing was sweet, her ball control exemplary, her frame of mind positive. In the fourth game, she briefly looked like her old self, moving Halep side to side to set up a forehand winner for 0-30, advancing confidently to 15-40, and then taking the next point with a shrewd forehand looper coaxing an error from an off balance Halep. That was vintage Azarenka. To 3-1 went Azarenka, and her many longtime boosters were surely encouraged by where she stood.

But she would not sustain that standard. In fact, her form would decline abruptly. In the following game, serving at 30-40, Azarenka double faulted. Halep had broken right back for 2-3. The Romanian trailed 15-40 in the sixth game but collected four points in a row for 3-3. She did not produce anything extraordinary in that game, but her depth and soundness lifted her out of trouble.

Azarenka was shaken now. She double faulted for 15-30 in the seventh game, missed a forehand down the line needlessly, and then sent a forehand approach wide. Halep took the lead at 4-3, promptly held at love for 5-3 and then broke again for the set, profiting from another double fault from Azarenka in that game. On a run of five consecutive games, Halep had turned the set around and put it in her victory column, winning it 6-3.

The 2018 French Open champion maintained her momentum with a love hold at the start of the second set before Azarenka at last won another game for 1-1, but not before she was pushed to deuce three times.

Azarenka reached break point in the following game but did not convert, driving a two-hander long. Calm, purposeful, knowing she was covering the court much better than her adversary and striking the ball with more clarity, Halep held on for 2-1.

Any fleeting hope that Azarenka might have had was gone, right then and there.

Both players sensed what was unfolding. They knew who was going to win this tennis match. Halep proceeded to win four games in a row and 16 of 21 points to complete her 6-3, 6-1victory. Azarenka, who lost eleven of the last twelve games, made 33 unforced errors while the ever efficient and measured Halep had only 9. Increasingly, Azarenka wore the look of a player compromised by doubts and indecision, who realized that her opponent remains solidly entrenched among the Top 10 in the world and is still a legitimate contender at the majors. That must have been deeply unsettling for a woman who finished 2012 as the No. 1-ranked woman in the world and captured consecutive Australian Open titles, in 2012 and 2013. Moreover, she was runner-up to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open in both of those years, losing each of those pulsating contests in three sets.

But in my view those days are gone forever. She has done an admirable job of claiming a place for herself again among the Top 40 after concluding 2017 at No. 208, but Azarenka keeps falling short in big matches. Every time she seems ready to make a significant move, she falls short of her aspirations. It happened last year at the U.S. Open in the third round against the defending champion Sloane Stephens. It happened today. And, sadly yet inevitably, it will happen again.

In her press conference after the jarringly clear verdict against Halep, Azarenka said, “I don’t really know what happened. I started a couple of games feeling pretty good but just couldn’t find the court. I missed way too many easy shots, and those things you can’t afford against top players. I mean, not really against anybody. But against top players when you hit like a meter from the net and miss the ball, you’re not going to win. I created all the opportunities but didn’t give myself that chance. To come out and play like that on Centre Court  I am very, very disappointed.”

The 29-year-old lamented the fact that she has had many arduous draws since her comeback, saying, “I have been getting all the difficult draws everywhere. I don’t think it’s only after I came back. It’s been quite common my whole career. But what can I do about it?”

The view here is that she must be willing to take on the responsibility to win crucial contests that could help her climb again toward the territory where she once lived so regularly. It is up to Azarenka to not resort to excuses and instead get something done when it matters the most, put herself in a position to prevail against lofty rivals and thus make progress in the rankings. I was optimistic a year or so ago that she would indeed make her comeback far reaching and lasting, but the nature of this latest loss to Halep affirms to me that her time as a top of the line player is almost surely over.