This week, we're highlighting our top five WTA players of the year. On Monday, December 7, we'll turn our focus to the ATP. Click here to read each selection.
Victoria Azarenka's year-end ranking of No. 13 is far from her best showing, but it may be her most impressive. And it was her strongest finish to a season, by a considerable margin, since 2016. That year, she welcomed her son Leo; four years later, she is on the cusp of returning to the Top 10—with Leo by her side each step of the way.
Notable 2020 Stats
Titles: Western & Southern Open
Finals: US Open, Ostrava
Win-loss record: 18-6
Notable wins: Serena Williams, Johanna Konta, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka
Like every other tennis player, Azarenka's 2020 was a tale of two seasons. But in her case, it was really just one, as a child custody battle prevented the two-time Australian Open champion from competing in Melbourne, and she would play just one match before the tour shutdown in March.
When the tours resumed in August in Lexington, she was dealt a challenging draw in Venus Williams, falling in straight sets. That's when everything changed.
In a two-tournament swing in New York, Azarenka came out swinging with a new attitude, and the results reflected those of a happier, more positive person. The 31-year-old focused on enjoying herself instead of her off-court troubles, tough draws and lack of wins.
The renewed mindset saw her finally win some of the bigger matches that she hadn’t been able to convert in 2018 and 2019.
"I feel that I enjoyed more the way I am on the court. Not necessarily focused on the result, but focusing on your progress, being in the moment, embracing the tough moments, tough challenges," Azarenka said at the US Open. "My mentality has been something a lot more fun for me to be around."
At the Western & Southern Open, held in New York, a revitalized Azarenka stormed through the draw with the loss of just one set (in the semifinals to Johanna Konta). When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the final with a leg injury, she handed Azarenka her first title since 2016, and her first-ever tournament win as a mother.
"It's pretty significant," Azarenka said. "I work hard to win matches, but I'm so much enjoying the process of playing and the battling that winning is like the bonus, and winning a tournament is a bonus."
She credited the change to growing up, explaining that as a young player she had "tunnel vision" as a "focused machine," while now she's more fulfilled both on and off the court, giving her a greater sense of achievement.
Her momentum didn’t slow the following week at the US Open. In the same venue, she cruised to the round of 16—including a 6-4, 6-2 win over Iga Swiatek that looks even better in retrospect—where she battled past Karolina Muchova in three sets. In the quarters, she blitzed 16th-seed Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-0. It marked her first Grand Slam semifinal in seven years, since she reached the US Open final back in 2013.
Then came a juicy showdown with Serena Williams. Azarenka has been one of the few players to have a modicum of success against the 23-time Grand Slam champion, but she was 0-10 against Williams in majors. This match would mark her most notable win over Serena, and fifth overall (against 18 defeats).
"Mentally I'm in such a different place," Azarenka said. "I think seven years ago, after I won the Australian Open and stuff, and playing kind of consistently with good results, it was kind of I wouldn't say expected but kind of expected for me to be in the final. I don't think that was the case this year.
"But it feels more fun this year, more fulfilling, more pleasant for me, yeah. It feels nice, nicer."
Though she lost in the US Open final to Osaka, Azarenka left New York with her head held high, and her cheery disposition intact.
In Rome, she reached the quarterfinals complete with an astounding 6-0, 6-0 win over Sofia Kenin. And while she exited Roland Garros in the second round (to No. 161-ranked Anna Karolina Schmiedlova), she bounced back to end 2020 strong by reaching the Ostrava final.
What's made her resurgence all the more remarkable is how close she came to quitting while going through the lengthy custody battle.
“I was ready to stop, definitely,” Azarenka said. “I haven't touched my racquet for five months. I was really not planning on coming to play until I had my personal issues resolved. So I never really made the final decision because I was going to do that after.
“So it was pretty close. But what kept me in the game is my desire to go after what I want. That's pretty much it.”