Victoria Azarenka is training hard at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in preparation for the 2019 season.
And she’ll have son Leo, who turned two on Wednesday, with her in Auckland, NZ to start the season, and also at the Australian Open.
But the custody issues with the boy’s father, Billy McKeague, are far from settled.
And that means that the fight for custody of her son may well be a factor once again in 2019.
This is a key season as the 29-year-old, currently ranked No. 51, works to get back to the top of the game – where she belongs.
The custody issues with McKeague caused Azarenka to miss some valuable chunks of time over the last season and a half.
Azarenka returned to the Tour at the Mallorca grass-court event in June 2017, some seven months after Leo was born. But after she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, the new mom didn’t play the rest of the season.
She only began her 2018 season at Indian Wells. And then, she reached the semifinals in Miami. But after ending her season early, after Tokyo in mid-September, Azarenka only had 12 tournaments on her resumé for the season.
Court setback for Azarenka
Last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, Azarenka suffered a setback to that end.
It’s a little complicated.
A judge in L.A.’s Superior Court had decided that a ruling in a court in Belarus in June, 2017 which determined that baby Leo’s legal residence was in Minsk, Belarus would stand.
McKeague appealed that ruling.
And according to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, an appeals court last week overturned it on a detail.
The appeals court judge declared the “decree issued by a court in Eastern Europe’s Republic of Belarus is entitled to no deference because the father was not afforded notice of the proceeding there.”
Leo was born in California. But McKeague had gone to Belarus with Azarenka and their son in March 2017. They resided there until they left for the French Open about three months later.
From what we know, the relationship was already on shaky footing. Azarenka is a high-profile figure in Belarus and has top-level connections. So that attempt to establish residency for the boy in Belarus seemed to be an effective move to get the ongoing custody issues onto her turf, so to speak.
No notice means overturned decision
According to the news report, McKeague said he was unaware of the Belarus decree when he filed the original custody petition in L.A. in July, 2017.
The filing included an “emergency order” by the judge that Leo had to remain in L.A. In other words, neither parent could take him out of town. It also decreed that McKeague would have temporary custody, and that Azarenka was to be granted visitation rights.
On that day, Azarenka reportedly filed an application to the Belarus court for custody of her own. In that filing, McKeague was the one with visitation rights. It was granted August 3, 2017.
If you were wondering why Azarenka ended up pulling out of the San Jose WTA event and the US Open around that time (and, indeed, didn’t play after Wimbledon), this was what was going on.
Custody to be decided in California
In Jan. 2018, the Superior Court judge decided that the Belarus decree on jurisdiction superseded the one filed in Los Angeles by McKeague. The judge did note that McKeague hadn’t received any notice of the Belarus hearings. The notices reportedly were sent to Azarenka’s apartment in Belarus, so he couldn’t have.
But it was that lack of notice that led the appeals court judge to overturn the decision last week.
Now that jurisdiction appears to have been established, the two sides can move on to a determinative custody phase. In the meantime, we’re told they appear to be cooperating in terms of having little Leo spending time with both families.
Notably, McKeague has noted Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz on his legal team. Azarenka counters with L.A. attorney Laura Wasser.