MELBOURNE, Australia – Can it really be three years since former No. 1 – and back-to-back Australian Open champion in 2012 and 2013 – Victoria Azarenka played the tournament?
Time flies. And a whole lot has changed in Azarenka’s life since then. That includes the fact that she now has a son, Leo, who turned two last month.
But there is one thing that is the same: Wim Fissette is holding the coaching reins, having returned last fall.
Fissette coached Azarenka in 2015 through to when she left the tour because of her pregnancy.
He was a timely add back then, fortunately available as Azarenka’s longtime coach Sam Sumyk had just jumped ship to work with Genie Bouchard. That wasn’t a move that worked out very well.
Here’s what they looked like on court earlier this week.
Big Sascha moved on to Osaka
One thing that’s quite different (in addition to the fact that this year’s Nike gear isn’t nearly as bright and shiny as it was back in 2016) is that Sascha Bajin is no longer on board.
Bajin, the longtime hitting partner of Serena Williams, worked with a few players in that capacity before signing on as the coach of Naomi Osaka.
That one has worked out VERY well so far.
(It also appears that Fissette has worked out his own sweet deal with Lacoste. Typically, coaches will get clothes from the company that sponsors their player. But the Dutchman was sporting some very new-looking crocodile wear on the practice court).
Tough first round in Brisbane
Ranked No. 52, Azarenka ended her 2018 season in September. And she’s had plenty to deal with off the court in the ongoing custody matter with ex-boyfriend Billy McKeague.
She did most of her offseason training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Azarenka played Brisbane. But the draw gods were unkind both to her, and to the tournament.
Unseeded, Azarenka lost in three sets to No. 6 Venus Williams in the first round.
She finds herself unseeded at the Australian Open as well.
Azarenka drew the feisty German Laura Siegemund in the first round in Melbourne on Tuesday. And if she wins that, she finds herself with a very doable second round and then, a possible third round match against Osaka – and Bajin.
In 2015, Azarenka also had ended her season early. But she traveled Down Under early in 2016, won the Brisbane event over Angelique Kerber in the final – and lost to eventual champion Kerber in the quarterfinals of the big dance.
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.
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.
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.
BRADENTON, Fla. – It’s a big year for Victoria Azarenka.
After a season and a half of competitive tennis following her return from having son Leo, the 29-year-old (when did THAT happen? Time sure does fly) finds herself ranked No. 51 to start the 2019 season.
She’s obviously a far better player than that ranking. But as she preps the 2019 season at the IMG Academy in Florida with old/new coach Wim Fissette, Azarenka hasn’t played a match in nearly three months.
The Belarussian cut her 2018 season short, after she retired in the first set of her quarterfinal match against Camila Giorgi in Tokyo in mid-September.
She’s looking great, and in great spirits. Here’s a glimpse of her at practice Dec. 14 at the IMG Academy.
Tennis.Life also was told that another alumni of Team Azarenka will be returning in 2019: physio/osteo/massage therapist Fabrice Gautier.
Gauthier started with Azarenka at the beginning of 2014. He was there at the end of the Sam Sumyk era and for all of Fissette’s first stint.
And he, too, was out of a job when Azarenka left on maternity leave in the summer of 2016.
Gautier has been based in Los Angeles for 15 years.
Tennis.Life reached out to Fissette in mid-October when we first got wind of this potential new collaboration. He has not responded to a request for comment. We’ve also reached to Gautier and to Azarenka’s agent for official confirmation.
Meanwhile, Azarenka has been on a total social-media fast since mid-September. Absolutely flying under the radar.
On Tuesday afternoon, Nick Bollettieri posted a pic of himself with Azarenka and Fissette on Twitter. So tennis.life readers were way ahead of the game.
The turnaround under Fissette was impressive, perhaps abetted in part by Kerber’s return to being the hunter, rather than the hunted. Being the underdog always seemed to be a more comfortable head space for her.
At 30, she added Wimbledon to her Grand Slam resumé this year, and went 46-19 overall as she earned nearly $5.7 million in prize money.
The German finished a solid No. 2 in the year-end rankings behind another player Fissette worked with, Simona Halep of Romania.
But then, the coach was out.
It’s possible that, with a new job offer in hand, Fissette used the leverage to attempt to strike a better deal with Kerber in the wake of their success.
Given the lack of security in the coaching ranks, you can’t blame a guy for trying to maximize.
It appears the German star saw things differently. And they didn’t even finish the season.
Jo Konta: one year and done
In 2017, it was a similar story for Fissette as he took on Great Britain’s Jo Konta.
After starting the 2016 season ranked No. 47, Konta finished it in the top 10. And then she parted ways with coach Esteban Carril.
There was a fair bit to defend in 2017. And at the beginning, the new Konta-Fissette partnership, reportedly with a bigger share of Fissette’s salary based upon a percentage of her earnings than is the standard, paid big dividends.
She won the Sydney tuneup then went out to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Then she roared through the draw and won the biggest title of her career in Miami.
After a final in Nottingham and a semifinal in Eastbourne, she had her best Wimbledon result ever.
But then, Konta lost in the first round in her last four tournaments, including the US Open. And she ended her season after Beijing with a foot issue. She said later that she felt burned out both physically and mentally in that post-Wimbledon period.
But she finished better than she started, at No. 9.
Still, Fissette was gone.
“We just both felt that it was the natural end of the relationship. I think we both brought out the best in each other for that period and we got the most out of each other for that period. We just felt it was time to move on,” Konta told The Independent.
But she bounced back quickly, as Fissette was available and ready to jump right in.
It seemed to be a good partnership even though the season had already begun, so there was little time prep or develop any chemistry.
But in July, 2016, Azarenka announced she was pregnant with son Leo.
So that was that.
2014: Simona Halep
Four years ago, Fissette took on 22-year-old Simona Halep.
The Romanian had made a leap in 2013 after back-to-back seasons hovering around the half-century mark in the standings.
She ended 2013 ranked No. 11. And then she hired Fissette.
By year’s end, she was No. 3 in the world. She gave Maria Sharapova everything she could handle, taking her to 6-4 in the third set in Halep’s first Grand Slam final in Paris.
Were she not hobbled by an leg injury at Wimbledon, she might well have defeated Bouchard in the semis and taken her chances with Petra Kvitova in the finals.
Halep also qualified for he WTA Tour finals in Singapore that year, her first career appearance. (Halep has not come out of the round-robin portion in three trips since. And she had to withdraw his year because of a herniated disc).
And yet, after the season, Fissette was gone.
Halep cited a desire to have a native Romanian with whom she would be more simpatico. She hired Victor Ionita, who had had good success with Sorana Cirstea. And she had help from another well-travelled coach, Thomas Hogstedt, during the Australian swing.
In recent years, Halep has risen to the top of the charts with the Aussie Darren Cahill at her side.
2013: Sabine Lisicki
Fissette began working with Germany’s Sabine Lisicki at the French Open that year. She also continued to work with her father Richard, a physician.
A month later, Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final.
To be fair, it wasn’t out of the blue; Lisicki has posted her finest Grand Slam results at the All-England Club. She has only gone past the third round twice in 27 Grand Slam main-draw appearances at other majors – both at the US Open.
Fissette got his start in 2005, as a hitting partner for the Belgian Kim Clijsters.
That ended in the spring of 2007, when Clijsters left the Tour and had her first child, daughter Jada.
She had one career major – the 2005 US Open – a that point.
Clijsters returned in 2009 and this time, she had Fissette on board as her coach.
She got back to No. 1 in the rankings in Feb. 2011 and won three major titles in 2 1/2 years.
After she had to withdraw from the 2011 US Open, where she was the two-time defending champion, Fissette left. He didn’t feeling at ease in a collaborative coaching setup after Clijsters’s old coach, Carl Maes, rejoined the team.
We’re told that one didn’t end well.
Clijsters played her final season with Maes, at the helm.
They last met at Indian Wells this year, where Serena was returning to action for the first time in singles since her maternity leave. Venus won that one. Before that, they met in the 2017 Australian Open final – the last tournament before Serena’s leave.
As Venus jokes, it was “two against one” in that one, won by Serena 6-4, 6-4 with baby Olympia already more than a twinkle in father Alexis Ohanian’s eye.
2.  Sloane Stephens (USA) vs. [WC] Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
Azarenka has looked very good through her first two matches. She dropped just three games in rolling over No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova in the second round.
Stephens, the reigning US Open women’s singles champion, had to come back from a set down to prevail over qualifier Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine in the second round.
On any other day, this would be the spotlight women’s match.
But it may well still be a very good one. Azarenka still holds a 3-2 edge. But she had the misfortune of running into Stephens at both Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year. And Stephens won both of those.
3.  Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs. [Q] Karolina Muchova (CZE)
Muchova caused a pretty major surprise late Wednesday night (early Thursday morning) as she took down No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.
Muguruza because increasingly agitated as that match went on. Muchova, ranked just outside the top 200 coming in, became increasingly at ease after a nervy start to the biggest match of her young career.
The matchup with Barty will be a very different one. And it should be one tennis purists will really enjoy.
Barty is one of the few higher-ranked players on the WTA Tour with a genuinely varied game, full of imagination and with a willingness to hit all the shots and come to the net on a regular basis.
Muchova has similar skills and mindset, even if her pro game is still in its relative infancy.
They get the Grandstand court, which is far less intimidating than cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium.
For Barty, getting a qualifier in the third round is a great break. For Muchova, the question will be whether she’s able to put aside her career win and keep her head down and her mind uncluttered for her next assignment.
Three men’s matches to watch
The Slam star power is definitely on the women’s side in Friday’s schedule. But there remain some compelling men’s matchups well worth a look – with a distinctly Canadian flavor.
1.  Milos Raonic (CAN) vs. [WC] Stan Wawrinka (SUI)
The former US Open champion Wawrinka needed a wild card to get in this year, as he makes his way back from two knee surgeries.
He’s back in the top 100 now, so that won’t be an issue going forward. But over the last few weeks, his level has been far closer to the top-five performer he was for several years.
As for Raonic, also beset by injuries if not of the same severity, he’s also a former top-five player. And a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon two years ago.
Here in New York without coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose wife is expecting a baby, he was better in his second round than he was in his first round. And his serve is working.
Wawrinka holds a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head. Raonic won the last one – a five-setter in the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open. But that was more than 2 1/2 years ago; a lot of water under the bridge since then.
2.  Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs.  Fernando Verdasco (ESP)
Verdasco pulled off a tough one against Andy Murray in the second round. And he saved some energy when doubles partner Vasek Pospisil, who pulled up a little broken the day after his night-match loss to Rafael Nadal, begged off the doubles.
While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are getting all the attention – with the potential quarterfinal clash between the Swiss and the Serb already highly anticipated – del Potro is definitely under the radar.
It has been nine years since he won his first and, so far, only Grand Slam title here.
Del Potro is 4-1 against Verdasco, with their two best battles coming on very fast indoor hard courts. The courts at the US Open this year are … not that fast.
3.  Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs.  Denis Shapovalov (CAN)
Shapovalov has burned a lot of physical and mental energy in getting this far. But on the plus side, he’s at the tail end of this summer period where he had to defend both a Masters 1000 semifinal, and a Grand Slam fourth round on the rankings tally.
He’s already largely done that, mitigating any potential drop in the rankings by at least getting credible results both in Canada and in New York.
Against Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist he’s meeting for the first time, he can at least enjoy shorter points. And on a cooler day. On the downside, Anderson’s big serve will test the young Canadian’s inconsistent return game.
The big South African survived a five-setter of his own in the first round, against American Ryan Harrison.
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.
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.
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.
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
Joao Souza Casper Ruud Axel Geller Elias Ymer Patrick Kypson
Ann Li Antonia Lottner Katie Boulter Tereza Smitkova Allie Kiick Xiyu Wang Roberta Vinci Emiliana Arango
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.
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.
Konikov, a fellow Belarussian, coached the likes of Max Mirnyi, Vladimir Voltchkov and Tatiana Poutchek before taking the college job in 2005.
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.
Her last match of the season was a third-set retirement in the first round of the French Open to Karin Knapp of Italy.
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.