Serena, Azarenka enter Madrid and Rome

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After playing Indian Wells on wild cards, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have both entered Madrid.

But this time, they are using their special protected rankings.

For Williams, that ranking is No. 1, and it puts her on the list directly behind the actual No. 1, Simona Halep.

For Azarenka, that’s No. 6. And that puts the Belarussian, who is in the semifinals of the Miami Open this week, between Jelena Ostapenko and No. 7 Caroline Garcia on the list.

Neither player has entered any tournaments before Madrid, which takes place the week of May 5-12. That includes Stuttgart, the prestigious indoor clay event that attracts a very strong field.

Of course, that could change. Should either want to play, no doubt a wild card would be forthcoming.

Madrid, then Rome

The two also have entered Rome, also with those protected rankings.

Azarenka has already signed on for the French Open. Williams has not – at least, not yet.

The deadline for the second Grand Slam of the season is April 16.

Azarenka entered several tournaments over the summer of 2017 through early 2018, including the Australian Open. But she ended up not playing any of them because of her well-documented issues with the custody of her son, Leo

At last word, Azarenka could not bring her son outside the state of California. But if her appearance in Miami hopefully indicated a decision to return to play on a more full-time basis, she was quite non-committal about it after losing her semifinal match to Sloane Stephens Thursday.

From the sound of it, she really doesn’t know what her next move will be.

Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from Miami with her recurring forearm injury, has entered Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome and the French Open. 

Keys retires with hamstring tightness

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MIAMI, Fla. – A tight hamstring that got worse forced Madison Keys out of the Miami Open Thursday, early in the second set of her match against the returning Victoria Azarenka.

Seeded No. 14, Keys had a tough opener against Azarenka, who didn’t have a bye in the first round and had to beat Catherine Bellis to get there.

The 23-year-old American was looking to bounce back from a loss to wild card Danielle Collins in her opening match at Indian Wells two weeks ago.

But with the hamstring not improving despite a medical timeout and a tape job, Keys decided she didn’t want to risk it.

At 7-6 (5), 2-0 down, she went over to a genuinely concerned-looking Azarenka and told her she was done.

“I felt my hamstring kind of tighten up in the middle of the first set, and at the end of the first I really felt it get worse. Then playing the first couple of games, it wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t want to make it worse than it already was,” Keys said.

hamstring

The 23-year-old has had hamstring issues before – even as a junior, the leg wrap was not a rare sight. But she said she has learned from experience that sometimes continuing to play when something’s not right isn’t the wisest option for the long term.

“I think I have gotten smarter about it. I think I have made some injuries worse by trying to play through it, and I’m just not interested in doing that at this point of the season right now,” she said. “So I think it was just the smarter idea to get off the court.”

Third round for Azarenka

Azarenka, who rolled over American Catherine Bellis 6-3, 6-0 to open the tournament, now founds herself in the third round.

The match against Keys, before the premature end, was an up-and-down affair with neither player able to seize the momentum for a full set. Azarenka led the first-set tiebreak 5-0, only to watch Keys win five of the next six points before the Belarussian pulled it out.

“I feel better. I think I raised my level compared to Indian Wells pretty dramatically. But I want to continue to just, you know, improve. But it’s going to take time. You know, it’s going to take time. I need to grind out. I need to be ready for whatever happens,” Azarenka said.

“And matches like this are very important, you know, in the first set to be down and still be able to find a way to win. Those are the things that brings confidence, brings more, you know, the rhythm, and the competition feel, I would say.”

Keys concurred on the level.

“Just from watching her from Indian Wells to Miami, she looks like she’s playing well already. There (are) obviously a couple of things here and there that aren’t perfect, but I was impressed with her form, and she’s obviously a great returner, which she showed tonight,” Keys said of Azarenka. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she was doing incredibly well in a couple of weeks.”

Azarenka’s next opponent will be No. 20 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

Keys’s next scheduled tournament is the Volvo Open, on Har-Tru, in Charleston, S.C. That event begins in 10 days, right after the Miami Open wraps.

Serena, Azarenka head Miami WC list

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The Miami Open announced its main-draw and qualifying-draw wild cards Wednesday.

And it confirms, as she indicated following her defeat at Indian Wells, that Victoria Azarenka will follow up with a second tournament in Miami.

Azarenka was given a wild card along with Serena Williams, who has won the event eight times.

American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was the No. 1 doubles player in the world before a horrible knee injury suffered at Wimbledon kept her out seven months, has also been given a singles wild card.

Amanda Anisimova, the 16-year-old who reached the fourth round this week at Indian Wells (and is a client of IMG, which owns the Miami event) also gets one along with ITF junior world champion Whitney Osuigwe, junior Wimbledon champion Claire Liu, and Bernarda Pera, the Croatian-turned-American who impressed at the Australian Open in January.

Ajla Tomljanovic, the Croatian-turned-Australian who is based in Boca Raton, Fla., also received a wild card. Roberta Vinci, who is retiring this spring, was given a wild card into the qualifying tournament.

Men’s wild cards skew young

On the men’s side, the wild cards are definitely Next-Gen – and international.

Christopher Eubanks (USA), Nicola Kuhn (Spain), Mikael Ymer (Sweden), Miomir Kecmanovic (Serbia) and Nicolas Jarry (Chile) all received wild cards.

Notable among those who did not receive free passes is Miami resident Genie Bouchard, who did get one this week at Indian Wells.

Currently ranked No. 116, Bouchard has never played the qualifying in Miami. She was in the main draw there from her first appearance in 2013, when she was ranked No. 123 and taking her first steps as a pro. That year, she did receive a wild card.

Also notable is the absence of former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, who announced she was coming out of retirement and hoped to make her return in Miami.

That, now, will not happen. Bartoli does hold another wild card in Monterrey, Mexico the following week.

Here’s the compete list.

Men’s Main Draw

Nicola Kuhn
Mikael Ymer
Chris Eubanks
Miomir Kecmanovic
Nicolas Jarry

Women’s Main Draw

Serena Williams
Victoria Azarenka
Claire Liu
Amanda Anisimova
Whitney Osuigwe
Bernarda Pera
Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Ajla Tomljanovic

Men’s Qualifying

Joao Souza
Casper Ruud
Axel Geller
Elias Ymer
Patrick Kypson

Women’s Qualifying

Ann Li
Antonia Lottner
Katie Boulter
Tereza Smitkova
Allie Kiick
Xiyu Wang
Roberta Vinci
Emiliana Arango

Victoria Azarenka hits the desert (with video)

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INDIAN WELLS – There have been many wild cards turned back, myriad hopeful returns to action that went south for former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka since last year’s Wimbledon.

So there was every possibility her wild card into next week’s BNP Paribas Open might be one more false alarm.

Except … the tournament is in her home state of California, a couple of hours’ drive from her Los Angeles-area home.

And with the 28-year-old’s child custody battle ongoing, that made Indian Wells different from, say, last month in Doha.

And so, on a cool Saturday morning in the desert, there she was, on the practice court, looking slim and hitting the ball a ton.

Bellowing Belarussians

It was more than a little amusing that Azarenka’s first practice partner was her countrywoman Aryna Sabalenka.

Why? Because in Azarenka’s absence, Sabalenka has not only emerged as a player rising in the rankings, but also one of the loudest players out there.

The practice match the two played Saturday was a first opportunity to gauge exactly how loud Sabalenka is, versus the memory of how loud we remembered Azarenka to be.

It was no contest: Sabalenka in straight sets (the noise match, not the actual match)

Here’s what it sounded like.

Azarenka had a full crew with her. And she looked as though she had never been away.

Her service motion looked good. She seemed to be moving all right.

That she had to watch a few missle-like Sabalenka winners scream by her uncontested does not make her unique in recent months.

Women’s tennis will be the better for a full-time return from the two-time Grand Slam champion.

A good draw would definitely help matters. And, hopefully, it won’t be a one-off with Azarenka going back off the grid after the tournament.

Indian Wells wild card for Azarenka

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This time, Victoria Azarenka might make the date.

The former No. 1 and two-time Indian Wells champion has been given a wild card into this year’s event, which takes place from March 5-18.

Azarenka has been given multiple wild cards in recent months, including into the most recent Australian Open. But because of the custody issues involving her son Leo, neither she nor her son’s father has been allowed to take him out of California.

And that’s been a deal-breaker for Azarenka, who hasn’t played since last July.

Finally comes an event in California (although she could have played the Newport Beach Challenger last week, given the same parameters).

Indian Wells is a little more than two hours by car from Azarenka’s home in Manhattan Beach. 

Azarenka’s new coach Slava Konikov also hails from Belarus (From the Sacramento State University website)

There has also been word that Azarenka got a wild card into the tournament in Doha in two weeks. That one needs more confirmation, though, given the location. If she plays it, it will be a major indicator that things have gone her way in court.

Azarenka also has hired a new coach, longtime Sacramento State men’s coach Slava Konikov.

Konikov, a fellow Belarussian, coached the likes of Max Mirnyi, Vladimir Voltchkov and Tatiana Poutchek before taking the college job in 2005.

Azarenka
A little night practice for Azarenka at Indian Wells in 2015. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Here’s the press-release quote:

“I have always loved playing at Indian Wells, and I could not be more thrilled to be returning to the desert this March to compete for my third event title. Having won here twice, this tournament holds a special place in my heart and I look forward to playing in front of some of the best tennis fans in the world at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in just a few weeks.” 

Eight more months away

If she does come, Azarenka will be rusty.

Not as rusty as she was after returning to the tour six months after Leo’s birth. But Azarenka has played very little tennis. And, as she deals with the complicated issue of custody, may have spent as much time in court and with her lawyer than she has ON court. She also appears to have lost a fair bit of weight.

Two years ago – before life happened – Azarenka was on a roll. She won Indian Wells in 2016, defeating Serena Williams in the final.

And then she pulled off the difficult back-to-back in Miami. Azarenka beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final as the No. 13 after upsetting No. 4 Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round, and No. 2 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.

At that point in the season (with a win in Brisbane and a quarterfinal at the Australian Open), she was 22-2.

Azarenka
Azarenka poses for a selfie with the fans gathered at the usual spot – right next to the “players’ field” at the BNP Paribas Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Her last match of the season was a third-set retirement in the first round of the French Open to Karin Knapp of Italy. 

 

Sunday 😅

A post shared by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

Since then, Azarenka has played just six matches over nearly two years: two in her return to the Tour on the grass in Mallorca. And four more at Wimbledon last summer, where she lost in the round of 16 to Simona Halep.

If she plays Indian Wells, it will have been nearly eight months since her last competitive match.

The most recent public development in Azarenka’s custody case came two weeks ago, when the judge in the California court ruled that the state is not the correct jurisdiction to hear it. Leo’s father, Billy McKeague, had three weeks to appeal the ruling.

Azarenka scores victory in ongoing custody dispute

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MELBOURNE, Australia – The custody dispute between two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and the father of her son Leo, Billy McKeague, has been ongoing in a California court for nearly six months now.

But on Friday, Azarenka won a significant victory in her quest to get custody of her son and the freedom to travel with him, as she seeks to resume her tennis career.

According to the website TMZ (and independently confirmed by tennis.life), the judge agrees with Azarenka that the case should be heard in her home country of Belarus.

In a 65-page opinion, the judge ruled that the case shouldn’t be decided in the U.S.

Reportedly, Azarenka has a court order from Belarus giving her primary custody. Last spring, as the Belarusian trained in her homeland for her return to tennis, McKeague was with her and he had established residency there.

Per TMZ, McKeague has three weeks to appeal the judge’s ruling. And we’re told he will.

Azarenka had been given a wild card into the Australian Open. But as with every tournament since last year’s Wimbledon, she wouldn’t travel without her son. Neither parent, per an earlier ruling by the judge, is allowed to leave California with the boy.

Azarenka awarded Australian Open wild card

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If Victoria Azarenka can make it, the Australian Open will welcome her with open arms.

Tournament director Craig Tiley announced Wednesday that the first Grand Slam of the season will give its two-time champion a wild card into the singles draw.

“Vika’s current situation is obviously very difficult for her and we have reached out to offer any support we can. As a two-time Australian Open champion we’ve awarded her a wildcard and look forward to seeing her back on court in Melbourne in January,” Tiley said in a statement.

The press-release quote from Azarenka:

“I’m so excited about coming back to Melbourne for the Australian Open, it’s my favourite tournament. I’ve won there twice and always feel so comfortable on court and the city is great,” Azarenka said. “It’s been a tough year and being able to come back to the AO will be a really positive way to start 2018. I’d like to thank Craig and his team for their understanding and support and can’t wait to see all my Aussie fans again.” 

Will the wild card be used?

The question, of course, is whether Azarenka will be able to resolve the custody of her one-year-old son Leo in time to start the 2018 season.

The WTA tuneup event in Auckland, New Zealand previously awarded the former No. 1 a wild card back on Nov. 21.

With her WTA ranking currently standing at No. 210, Azarenka would have been on the bubble to make the qualifying draw at the Australian Open.

But so far, there has been no indication that her custody issues are nearing a resolution. At times during the fall, she was in court several times a week, Tennis.Life was told.

When she does return, she’s going to be pretty rusty. Azarenka’s last match was a fourth-round defeat at Wimbledon. By the time Auckland rolls around, that’s six months without a match, piled on top of another year away during her maternity leave.

She also finds herself without a team, a consequence of her uncertain situation.

Coach Michael Joyce was the first to leave. He accepted a job coaching top-10 Brit Jo Konta.

Last week, trainer Ashcon Rezazadeh announced he also was leaving.

Azarenka, Kuznetsova missing from AO lists; Serena on

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The preliminary lists are complete for next month’s Australian Open, after the deadline for entry passed Monday.

And the good news is that Serena Williams is on the women’s singles entry list.

The inevitable withdrawals are still to come. But already, some notable names are missing on the women’s side.

Victoria Azarenka is first on the MIA list.

The former No. 1, currently ranked No. 210, hasn’t entered with either her true ranking or with the protected ranking she could use to play a second Grand Slam event (she used it at Wimbledon last summer).

Azarenka officially remains in the WTA warmup event in Auckland, NZ, for what that’s worth. And the Australian Open no doubt would give their two-time champion a wild card.

But it’s clear the Belarussian’s ongoing child custody issues back home in California seem not to have a short-term resolution, no matter how positive she has been publicly about an imminent return.

No. 12 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who said last week the Australian swing was likely a no-go because of wrist issues, also is not on the entry list.

China’s Saisai Zheng, ranked No. 94, also is missing.

Three players entered with protected rankings: Anna-Lena Friedsam (No. 50), Margarita Gasparyan (No. 62) and Kristina Kucova (No. 96).

That puts the initial cutoff at No. 107.

The next player in would be Anna Tatishvili, with a protected ranking of No. 107. American teenager Sofia Kenin and Slovakia’s Jana Cepelova come after that.

In the “good news” department, Bethanie Mattek-Sands entered the singles. With her ranking of No. 123, she would have to play the qualifying, although the American has not yet entered that.

Sara Errani and Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder, who turns 39 next week and hasn’t played the Australian Open since 2011, will play the qualifying.

Everyone in from the ATP top 100

On the men’s side, the initial cutoff is even tougher – right at No. 100.

Chile’s Nicolas Jarry is therefore the last one in on the initial list.

 Andreas Haider Maurer (No. 63), Yoshihito Nishioka (No. 66), John Millman (No. 81) and Ricardas Berankis (No. 93) have used protected rankings to enter.

Every single player currently ranked in the top 100 is entered.

lists
Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka (seen here practicing on Rod Laver Arena last January) are both expected to be back in action. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Next in if players withdraw are Gerald Melzer, Rogerio Dutra Silva, Marcos Baghdatis, Nicolas Mahut and a trio of players: Taylor Fritz, Pablo Andujar and James Duckworth. All three are at No. 105; the latter two are protected rankings, which gives Fritz priority. 

Victoria Azarenka withdraws from US Open

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Given the ongoing family situation former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka is going through, it’s not a huge surprise that she officially withdrew from the U.S. Open Monday.

Azarenka, 28, is in the early stages of a custody battle with ex-boyfriend Billy McKeague over their 8-month-old son, Leo.

In a statement four days ago, Azarenka shed some light on the situation, after several weeks of rumors.

She said she was unwilling to leave her baby son back in California to come to New York to play the Open. And she hoped that the child’s father would agree to make the trip to New York (at her expense) so that she could play.

Clearly, that didn’t happen.

What the rest of the season holds for Azarenka remains an open question.

It was kind, in a sense, for Azarenka to pull out today. It allowed the next alternate, Misa Eguchi of Japan, into the main draw without having to go through the qualifying tournament that begins tomorrow.

The domino affect allowed American Allie Kiick, with a special ranking of No. 247, to squeeze into the qualifying at the 11th hour. She had already been given a wild card, but this way she earns her way in on her own merits.

(For interested Canadian fans, Katherine Sebov is ranked slightly higher, and she would have been in the qualifying as it all turned out. But she withdrew).

There seem to be no further withdrawals from the main entry lists at this point. But there always are last-minute surprises. 

So far, American Marcos Giron (No. 249) is the last one into the qualifying on the men’s side.

 

Victoria Azarenka can play US Open, but only if she leaves son Leo behind

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Victoria Azarenka’s return from maternity leave got off to an encouraging start on the grass.

But the 28-year-old hasn’t played since, despite planning to compete in Stanford and Cincinnati.

On Wednesday, she was expected to make a statement outlining her situation. There has much speculation, including a takedown on the gossip site TMZ.

Finally, Thursday morning, it came.

 

A Personal Note

A post shared by Victoria Azarenka (@vichka35) on

Since Wimbledon, Azarenka has been embroiled in the first throes of what could be a nasty custody battle with her ex-boyfriend Billy McKeague.

McKeague is the father of her son Leo, born last December.

But the relationship broke up shortly after Wimbledon. And in the last few weeks, Azarenka has been in court in Los Angeles trying to hash out a temporary custodial arrangement before the permanent parameters are decided upon.

The bottom line is that as it stands, Azarenka says she can play the US Open – but only if she leaves her baby son behind in California.

And she is not prepared to do that.

“I look forward to hopefully having some positive developments soon so that this difficult situation can be resolved and I can get back to competing. No parents should have to decide between their child of their career,” she writes.

“I remain optimistic that in the coming days Leo’s father and I can put aside any differences and take steps in the right direction to more effectively work as a team and agree on an arrangement for all three of us to travel for for me to compete but, more importantly to ensure that Leo has a consistent presence from both of his parents.”