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Victoria Azarenka, Unfiltered: former No. 1 plots thoughtful, show-stopping US Open appearance
She's not retiring, her podcast is back, and though some may not want her at a Ukraine benefit, the three-time Flushing Meadows finalist is ready for everything at the year's final major.
Published Aug 22, 2022
WATCH: Think About It, Season 2 Teaser
The media center at this year's Citi Open shared a common area with the tournament’s player lounge, allowing journalists an unfiltered look at the athletes as we opined on the state of their game from what was, quite literally, a glass house. In between interviews and deadlines, one could catch Simona Halep on her phone, or Danish teens Holger Rune and Clara Tauson locked in a light ping pong clash before it was time for them to take the court in the unrelenting D.C. heat.
One morning, Victoria Azarenka made an unexpected arrival. Playing her first tournament since late May, the former world No. 1 had no official match on the day's schedule, instead challenging son Leo to a game of foosball.
Ever the competitor, her intense façade quickly fades in the face of her five-year-old’s contagious smile, the two thriving in the casual setting.
“Simple life things make me the most happy,” she told me after defeating Dayana Yastremska in straight sets a day earlier. “It doesn’t have to be big. Just having a family and a home. It’s in times like these when you realize just how priceless these things are. They’ve always been for me but I think in the bigger picture it’s much more significant.”
The win was Azarenka’s first since Roland Garros. Following a third-round defeat to Jil Teichmann in Paris, she opted out of the grass-court swing in advance of Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players, and described the US Open Series like exposure therapy, a reintegration into the rigors of tour life.
“I had quite a few breaks,” she mused, having sat out the first part of the clay-court season after an emotional exit from the Miami Open. “I think what was hard for me was actually coming back to play the tournaments—not in terms of motivation or competition, but to travel again, to be in the hotel environment. I’m in a place where my life is pretty great and I love it. I’m never going to be bored off the court, but the competition is still what drives me.”
Azarenka nonetheless continues to expand beyond the bounds of the tour calendar, announcing the second season of her Think About It podcast—featuring high-profile guests like Seal, David Grutman, and Jon Wertheim—though the teaser had many worrying the 33-year-old was considering retirement.
“These comments put a smile on my face and reminded me how much people love to watch me play and chase my dreams,” she wrote in a statement on Monday.
It was a moment of levity in the wake of more serious headlines surrounding her planned involvement in a USTA benefit for those affected by the war in Ukraine. Fellow player Marta Kostyuk has been vocal in her opposition to Azarenka’s participation, declining her own invitation to the event in protest.
“I don't understand how human it really is, why does she do it and why does she go for it,” the Ukrainian told BTU, an unwitting retort to Azarenka’s own hope that everyone “remains human” through this difficult time.
I’m in a place where my life is pretty great and I love it. I’m never going to be bored off the court, but the competition is still what drives me. Victoria Azarenka
As a member of the WTA Player Council, Azarenka had been on the proverbial front lines of negotiating with the All England Club so that Russian and Belarusian athletes could compete at Wimbledon, and decried the “ignorance” from those who rejected their attempts at compromise.
“You’re coming in with options, opportunities, and your heart, and it’s met with basically a ‘We don’t care,’” she said. “But we all move on. It didn’t change my view and my perception when it comes to helping people, and it won’t. I don’t believe that part of me will ever go away, so we’ll just move on.”
A two-time Australian Open champion and three-time US Open finalist, Azarenka appeared in no better position to leave that disappointment behind after a quarterfinal finish in Washington, D.C., but efforts to build on her current ranking of No. 26 have been marred since: a visa issue ruled her out of the National Bank Open in Toronto, and a thudding loss to Emma Raducanu sent her out of Cincinnati.
Azarenka is now left to draw on her not-inconsiderable wealth of experience heading into the final major of 2022.
“I know how to prepare, but still, there’s that moment of unknown that comes to mind, and the rustiness of not playing for a while…it’s very easy to slip into the mode of thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ and get bogged down by expectations. One of the pluses of my experience is being able to bring myself back to the present and stay here. This is definitely where I perform the best, so I hope to stay in this zone.”
Her 15th US Open appearance finds the veteran in a narrative purgatory, at once a sentimental favorite after almost two decades on tour but also under a cloud given the continued strife in Ukraine and her own on-court inconsistencies.
The latter likely matters little: as far as the unfiltered Azarenka is concerned, she’s coming home, and armed only with a message of unity.
“I love the US Open for many reasons,” she said. “It was my breakthrough Grand Slam. I have so many fans, family members, and friends who are like family coming there, so it’s always going to be a special event for me.
“Last year was super exciting for a lot of people, having new, young champions and finalists. I’m excited, but I also look at it from the perspective of entertainment of the fans and people who come to watch. I know people love to watch me play and I want to bring that show in New York.”