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.”

Victoria Azarenka living a nightmare as custody battle looms (updated)

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The pure joy exhibited by Victoria Azarenka in her first few months of motherhood has turned into a nightmare.

Until now, the news has only appeared in one media outlet, the Israel newspaper Yediot Acharonot.

But Tennis.Life has learned, from a reliable source, that the 28-year-old from Belarus has been through a horrifying ordeal since returning home from Wimbledon.

Instead of focusing on her return to the court after giving birth to son Leo last December and enjoying that irreplaceable first year of motherhood, she has been fighting for the right to see her son.

UPDATE:

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

Breakup, and custody battle looming?

Azarenka pulled out of a planned participation in the Stanford event last week, citing a viral illness. In fact, her ex-boyfriend Billy McKeague, the father of son Leo, filed papers to gain temporary custody of their seven-month old son just before she was to leave.

Azarenka is not an American citizen, which appears to have played in her ex’s favour. And so, her son was – temporarily – taken from her to be with his father.

What a terrifying, devastating thing for a new mother to go through. 

We’re told that since then, the former couple has negotiated a more equitable 50/50 arrangement. But the custody process has barely begun.

The Israeli report stated there is to be a hearing in Belarus in mid-September. Tennis.life is told the location of that hearing is inaccurate.

US Open not ruled out

Azarenka is still entered in the US Open. But given the circumstances, her leaving the state and bringing baby Leo with her to New York City could be problematic (in fact, the TMZ story states that the judge in the case won’t allow it, even though Azarenka offered to pay the expenses for her to be in New York during that period).

And imagine trying to focus on trying to win tennis matches when you’re dealing with something like this. 

As anyone who has gone through a custody case knows, these matters can take an eternity to resolve.

Azarenka looked positively luminous at Wimbledon, her first Grand Slam since becoming a mother. The new chapter appeared to be the most joyful time of her life, with so much to look forward to.

Instead, she’s going to have to muster all of her renowned toughness to ensure the best outcome for both herself, and her son.

There has been no official comment so far from Azarenka, or her representatives. You’d have to think something will be forthcoming, as the news spreads.

On Friday, it was officially announced that she has withdrawn from the Cincinnati event next week due to a family matter.

(Update: Azarenka’s case has made TMZ – never a good sign. As far as we know, the basic details are essentially correct. Except, you know, they misspelled her name)

Sharapova, Azarenka among Cincy WCs

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The joint ATP/WTA Tour event in Cincinnati next month announced its women’s wild cards Thursday.

The lucky recipients are Maria Sharapova (who also has a wild card into the Rogers Cup event in Toronto the previous week), Victoria Azarenka, comebacking American Sloane Stevens and Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Vondrousova, who just turned 18, already is at a career-high No. 74 in the WTA Tour rankings. 

She won her first Tour title in Biel, Switzerland in the spring. And in that event, she went from the qualifying to the trophy. Vondrousova upset No. 1 seed Barbora Strycova in the semifinals and Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in the final.

Cincy
Vondrousova played Kasatkina, who defeated her in that French Open junior final, in the big girls’ division this year. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years ago, when she was still just 15, Vondrousova was the No. 1 junior in the world. She never won a junior Grand Slam title. But at 14, she was a semi-finalist at the junior French Open (losing to Daria Kasatkina) and at Wimbledon (losing to Jelena Ostapenko).

Vondrousova also was a semifinalist in the Paris juniors the next year, in 2015.

Stephens, Azarenka and Sharapova all coming back

Stephens is on the comeback trail from foot surgery. The American made her return at Wimbledon this year, playing singles, doubles and mixed. She won one round in women’s doubles. But at least the former world No. 11 is back.

Technically, her actual current ranking is No. 926. And Azarenka’s actual ranking this week is No. 203.

Cincy
Stephens, who had been out all season after foot surgery, got her tennis shoes wet at Wimbledon earlier this month. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Sharapova, who hasn’t played since suffering a thigh injury and retiring from her match at the Italian Open in early May, is scheduled to return next week at Stanford after playing a few matches in World Team Tennis.

Azarenka doesn’t technically need wild cards, as she can use a protected ranking of No. 6 to enter wherever she likes. But the new mom didn’t enter either Cincinnati or Montreal before the deadline.

She can avail herself of top-20 wild cards, without them counting against the limited number of tournaments in which she uses the protected ranking.

Vika, Leo and Yonex triple-team Wimby

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WIMBLEDON – The deal was only officially announced Sunday.

So the returning Victoria Azarenka jumped the gun a little when she appeared on the practice courts at Wimbledon Saturday with her new, non-generic, officially stenciled Yonex racquet.

After many years with Wilson, the 27-year-old has made the switch.

Here’s the official quote from the announcement:

“I really feel I haven’t reached my full potential yet. To achieve my goals I knew I needed to change my technique, biomechanics, as well as finding the perfect racquet to support my game. So I took the opportunity before returning to search for something with more power and control,” the statement says. “The square-shaped Yonex ISOMETRIC racquets are actually very familiar to me.”

Azarenka played with Yonex as a junior. Her new coach, Michael Joyce, played with Yonex during his career, and still does.

Here’s what it looked like for her first tournament back in Mallorca, where she returned to action after 13 months away during a maternity leave.

In Mallorca, Azarenka used a generic-looking racquet, even if everyone who paid attention pretty much knew it was a Yonex. What else did she get in Mallorca? Chicken pox. Seriously.

Here’s what it looked like on Court 18 on Saturday – a sneak preview, as it turned out.

We’re told the racquet was made just for her, and is similar to the EZone Nick Kyrgios plays with. For now, it’s black – but that’s only because she returned ahead of schedule.

By the time Azarenka gets to Stanford, Calif., which is where she had originally planned her return, it will have new specs.

The new mom might not even remember what racquet she played with before. Because the stick switch is far from the biggest change on her life.

She joked in her press conference Saturday that she couldn’t remember much about what happened before she gave birth to her son, Leo.

“I think it messes with your head in that way a little bit,” she said, smiling.

100 per cent effort, or forget it

One thing she hasn’t forgotten is how to compete. The difference for Azarenka now is that she feels she owes it to herself to give it 100 per cent, every match, every day, every point.

“My 100 per cent in terms of effort, I think it’s more demanding now because I expect myself to be present every single moment I’m on the court. Otherwise, you know, I have another job to do. If I don’t give 100 per cent on the court, there’s no point to do it,” she said. 

“Being in an individual sport, you have to be a little bit more selfish. So it’s a little bit of a mind trick that I have to do to feel okay with taking some time for myself, not feel guilty that I don’t spend my every free second with my son, which is sometimes tough,” she added.

As for how quickly she can get back to winning big matches, she says there’s no formula. She feels as fit as she has ever been (and live, up close, it’s incredible how lean and fit she looks). But transferring all that effort since she returned to the practice court into match play is an uncertainty.

“In tennis, and in tournaments, you can feel great on the practice court, but to be able to transfer that into the match I think is a real art. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it clicks right away. You never know,” she said. “I think I’m on the right path to bringing all those components together and try to play better than I ever was before.”

New coach, fresh start

Azarenka didn’t know new coach Michael Joyce personally before they began working together. She knew him only in the role of the opposing coach. For many years, that oppponent was rival Maria Sharapova.

“Once we met and start talking about tennis, what does he think I can improve, I really liked his philosophy. I told him that I don’t want to come back and play just to have fun. I want to come back and make sure I get to the top level. We share the same determination, the same goals in that aspect,” Azarenka said. 

“He’s teaching me couple of things that I didn’t maybe pay attention so much before, especially tactics-wise. I need to keep applying that.”

Azarenka’s mother and boyfriend are here at Wimbledon with her. Their nanny is not. But she’s got enough man (and woman) power to make sure little Leo is well taken care of.

The traveling was a piece of cake for Leo, Azarenka said. For her, it was a whole new exercise in logistics. She had begun making travel arrangements for the family with a mind to starting back in Stanford.

So when Joyce suggested she should consider coming back earlier, it was the sheer logistics of it, as much as the tennis, that had her hesitating for a little bit.

“I thought about it for about a week, maybe even two. I felt like I was ready to compete. And I was tired of practicing, just keep going through drills. I needed competition,” she said. “He’s actually a very good traveler. I think I stress out more because I want to make sure that everything is going great. I think I’m stressing out more than anything else around me. He is totally fine. He loves the plane.

“But it is definitely a little bit more luggage,” she added. “And overall it’s definitely you have to get to the airport earlier than I used to. I would just show up before the closing of check-in.

“Now, it’s in advance.”

Azarenka has a tough first-round match against California teenager CiCi Bellis on Monday. She has practiced with her, both in Mallorca and here at Wimbledon – it’s amazing how often that happens, that players practice together and then draw each other. But she has never faced her on the match court.

Azarenka’s comeback an overnight affair

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You wonder who slept better Tuesday night: Risa Ozaki or Victoria Azarenka.

Was it Ozaki? The 23-year-old ranked No. 74 who would return to the court at the Mallorca Open Wednesday afternoon, and try to serve out the match against a former No. 1?

Or was it Azarenka? The new mother escaped a first-round loss Tuesday night because of bad light. But she still was in big trouble in her first match in more than a year.

We know who probably slept better Wednesday night, after Azarenka pulled off the 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7) comeback win.

“I’m still trying to find my range but mentally, I was there for every point. That and the experience helped me through, even at 40-0 down, I was trying to find my way out of it,” Azarenka told the media in Mallorca. ” wouldn’t say I had the best preparation coming to this tournament, but mentally, it’s better to go through this kind of a match.”

Azarenka was down two breaks against Ozaki in the third set and got one back – then coughed it up. All along, she muttered about the impending darkness; the umpire was having none of it.

More than that, the Belarussian was willing the match to be interrupted so she could come back the next day and try to finish the job. Meanwhile, her less-experienced opponent would have all night to think about what might have been.

Finally, after Azarenka held for 4-5 in the third set, they stopped play.

The Comeback, Part Two

In a third-set tiebreak chock-full of points against serve, Azarenka finally converted on her third match point to make her first comeback match a successful one. Barely.

AzarenkaShe plays No. 7 seed Ana Konjuh in the second round Thursday.

It took another 25 minutes of nervous tennis on both sides. And as she did Tuesday, Azarenka was firing unforced errors long from both the forehand and backhand wings.

Ozaki was broken when she served for it the first time right as they resumed. Azarenka handed the break back – at love – with four unforced errors on her own serve.

Ozaki had 40-0 on her serve, three match points, when she served for it again at 6-5. When she was behind, really behind the eight-ball, Azarenka exhibited more patience. And once she got it to a tiebreak, you had to like her chances.

Maybe.

A player who is broken twice when serving for the match, particularly an underdog like Ozaki, is probably not going to keep her cool enough to finish it off.

Tiebreak full of mini-breaks

The Japanese player was quickly up 2-0. Then 4-2, and 5-3 in the decider. But once Azarenka caught up, the reflexes kicked in. She hasn’t been gone so long that she’s forgotten what to do.

Despite all the unforced errors (41 in all, to go with 30 winners, and including two backhand errors on her first two match points), Azarenka trusted her groundstrokes when she most needed them. At 7-7, she crushed a forehand winner down the line. At 8-7, she crushed a backhand winner down the line.

There was no dab after the win (luckily, that ritual didn’t return with the Belarussian). She even applauded her opponent off the court afterwards.

If it wasn’t as impressive as the return of a certain other former No. 1 this spring, it should be said that while Maria Sharapova continued to train and practice during most of her 15-month doping suspension, Azarenka was … otherwise engaged.

As well, starting a comeback on the unpredictable grass courts is setting a big challenge for yourself. The timing, the dodgy bounces, the lack of long rallies to get rhythm – all were challenges Azarenka faced with relative aplomb.

(Main pics from the Mallorca Open)

No fake news: Vika back for grass

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ROLAND GARROS – Victoria Azarenka got back to serious training about six weeks ago.

She must have gotten her competitive jones back earlier than she had anticipated. 

The 27-year-old former No. 1 had planned to be back during the U.S. hard-court season, likely at Stanford. But she has moved up those plans.

Azarenka, who currently is back in her native Belarus, will be back in just a few weeks. She’ll play Wimbledon, and will also play a grass-court tuneup event before that.

What great news. Although she did try to give Twitter a bum steer.

Azarenka had son Leo last December. She’ll come back with a protected ranking of No. 6, and won’t need any wild cards to play whatever she wants.

Her official ranking at the moment is at No. 972, as she doesn’t have many ranking points left on the computer.

Here are some shots of Azarenka at Wimbledon over the years.

Never a champion, but still dangerous

That protected ranking can’t be used for seeding purposes, though. So even though she won’t have played in a year, she’ll still be a dangerous floater at Wimbledon.

She has never won it, nor reached the final. Azarenka’s best Wimbledon effort was reaching the semifinals in 2011 and 2012. She also reached the semi-finals twice in the juniors in 2004 and 2005. For Belarus, Azarenka won the bronze medal in singles (and the gold in mixed) at the Olympics, which were held at the All-England Club in 2012.

If her Manhattan Beach, Calif. neighbour (they live just three miles apart, although that doesn’t seem to mean they actually practice together) Maria Sharapova gets through the qualifying as expected, that makes two dangerous floaters.

Victoria Azarenka’s return confirmed: Stanford in July

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Early rumours that new mom Victoria Azarenka might try to get back to the WTA Tour in time for Wimbledon were quickly scuttled as a little too ambitious.

The U.S. summer hard-court season was a more likely target as the 27-year-old gets back to serious training this month. That has been confirmed: the Bank of the West Classic announced Sunday that the former No. 1 from Belarus will return at the Premier event in Palo Alto, California, which runs from July 31 to Aug. 6.

The official quote from the tournament website (who writes these things, anyway?)

“I am very excited to be returning to the WTA at the Bank of the West Classic. Becoming a mother has been the most rewarding thing that has ever happened to me and really puts things in perspective. I am looking forward to beginning this new stage of my career.”

Azarenka won the singles title in Stanford in 2010 and the doubles title in 2011 with another new mom, the now-retired Maria Kirilenko. It has not, ironically enough, been a tournament at which she’s had great results overall. She has played it just twice since then, losing her first match in 2011 to Marina Erakovic of New Zealand and her first match in 2014 to Venus Williams.