Thanks to a solid Labor Day effort this evening, Victoria Azarenka can now take her son Leo to a place she knew quite well before his birth but had yet to go to since: a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Prior to Leo’s arrival in December 2016, Azarenka had reached the quarters in a major 16 times. Last eight trek number one in the life of Leo came as the result of a 5-7, 6-1, 6-4 victory over 20th-seeded Karolina Muchova. Over the course of two hours and 29 minutes, fitness, movement, depth and accuracy were all on display in one of Azarenka’s finest recent efforts.
“But it feels amazing that I can share this moment, and hopefully be a good role model to my son,” said Azarenka. When you have tough moments in your life, you still persevere with holding your head high and a smile on your face.”
Courtesy of a swarming Muchova, there wasn’t much for Azarenka to smile about early on. The 24-year-old Czech took charge rapidly, sprinting out to a 4-1, 30-15 lead. Muchova is a connoisseur’s delight, a fluid stylist who eschews raw firepower in favor of opportunistic court positioning. Certainly she can snap off winners, but the springboard for the Muchova arsenal is her ability to move forward inside the baseline, take balls early and direct them deceptively, be it with a slice backhand, a two-handed drive, a forehand she can roll or flatten out, sudden sorties to the net and even that near-extinct but still useful tactic, the serve and volley. The serve is also a smooth delivery, Muchova able to hit it flat, slice or kick.
“She had a great game, very smart game,” said Azarenka. “A lot of variety. She can create good power. She can create slice. She can create angles. She serves and volleys. She's very, very complete player. That's really, really cool to see. Obviously I had to find many solutions. One way wasn't going to work because of the variety that she brings.”
Amid such a deep first deficit, Azarenka likely hoped to merely fight well enough to build momentum for set two. Her effort proved even more productive. Azarenka broke Muchova in that 4-1 game and saved two set points to level it at 5-all. Though Muchova would eventually take the set, the effort to do so clearly sapped her. This erosion turned out to be both mental and physical.
Early in the second set, Muchova pulled a muscle in her left thigh. Azarenka sprinted through the second set, driving the ball consistently deep and just hard enough to repeatedly preclude Muchova from making her preferred forward movements. Muchova at this stage appeared to be shrinking, her footwork minimal, her shots losing their sting. Once that set was over, Muchova left the court to take a medical time out, emerging with a wrapped left thigh – and far less of the spring in her step that she’d shown early in the first set.
Meanwhile, Azarenka was fresh, fit, mobile. Through the early stages of the third, she appeared ready to zip through to the finish line. Hindered if not overtly hobbled, Muchova continued to deploy her array. Serving at 2-2, she held at 30, aided by a pair of serve and volley efforts and two aces.
The seventh game, Muchova serving at 3-all, conclusively tilted the clash in Azarenka’s favor. A double-fault at love-15, followed by a sublime Azarenka down-the-line backhand winner. Armed with three break points, Azarenka cashed in the second and then held handily at 15 to go up 5-3. By this stage, the difference in energy and urgency from the two players was highly visible. Azarenka remained focused, throwing jabs, continuing to move. Muchova, sporadically listless, intermittently lashed.
But in the end, it was Azarenka’s comprehensive court coverage that made the difference. At 5-4, 30-love, scampering from sideline to sideline, she dashed into her backhand corner to retrieve a Muchova angled backhand volley and threw up a defensive lob that elicited a netted overhead. Holding match point to reach the final eight, Azarenka lined an untouchable inside-out forehand, her 22nd winner of the match.untouchable inside-out forehand, her 22nd winner of the match.
“It was fun to be able to turn it around, to find solutions today on the court, and have a great match,” said Azarenka. “I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a great quality from both of us.”
Along with Serena Williams and Tsvetana Pironkova, Azarenka had become the third mother to reach the quarterfinals of this year’s US Open, the first time in history three mothers to have gone that far at the same major. Though Azarenka made a point of saying that on a tennis court she regards herself more as a tennis player than a mother, it’s clear that everything from parenthood to the current pandemic has aided her ability to weather the storms of a mere tennis match with exceptional composure.