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Monday, January 30, 2023

10-year itch: With vintage show, Azarenka into first Oz Open semis since 2013

FeaturedSports News10-year itch: With vintage show, Azarenka into first Oz Open semis since 2013

Victoria Azarenka ends 2022 ranked 27th in the world – just as she started the year. She showed glimpses of her best form, played a few good matches, reached the fourth round of two Grand Slams, but her 24-13 record on the year showed that there was something holding her back at key moments.

In essence, she was running well, her strokes were in good shape but she wasn’t that brave; Don’t have the guts to jump into the deep end and take risks. Being timid won’t win you a match against the best and she knew it. So, he spent his off-season doing things that challenged him and made him uncomfortable.

Against third seed Jessica Pegula on Tuesday, it all seems to be coming together perfectly. The two-time Australian Open champion rolled back the years as she cruised to a 6-4, 6-1 win in 1 hour 37 minutes.

“My tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really there mentally,” Azarenka said in her on-court interview about what has changed since the end of the 2022 season. “I played with a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. It was really difficult to be brave and make the right choices on the court in the important moments when you feel anxious and hesitant.

Mental reset

So, he decided to change things.

“I worked a lot on my mindset, challenging myself to do things I wouldn’t do before,” Azarenka said. “When you have great success, sometimes you become conservative and reluctant to try new things. I was like, you know what, I’m open-minded, try new things, keep my head down. Keep and work.

All of that work helped against Pegula, a player who usually has an uncomplicated approach to the game, and sent Azarenka into her first Australian Open semifinal since 2013. It was also his first win against a top-5 player in a major. 2012 US Open semifinal where she defeated Maria Sharapova.

The new mindset helped Azarenka execute her aggressive game plan. Pegula was the highest-ranked player in the women’s draw but from the start, it was the Belarusian who controlled the tempo. And he did so by shifting the American from side to side and not allowing him to find a rhythm on the groundstrokes.

Not letting the opponent play the game they want is usually half the battle won. And Azarenka made some smart plays of her own after that – she had fewer clean winners than Pegula (17 to 19) but also fewer unforced errors (20 to 31).

Pegula clearly felt that he too was being forced into a corner: “Hitting the ball deep, taking it quickly, changing the direction of the ball, doing things that I normally like to do with people. She was doing it well.

“It became difficult for me to feel like I could really put pressure on her. It felt like she was constantly putting pressure on me.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic, despite what the scoreline suggested. Azarenka led 3-0 after just 12 minutes but Pegula hung in there. In the past, we have seen the world number 24 slip up when she was seemingly in control but on Tuesday she held off the American.

“I knew I had to play fast,” Azarenka said in the post-match press conference. “I didn’t want to give her a chance to get mixed up because on a hip level, there’s no one better than Jess, she just doesn’t miss.

“I did some interesting slices. I was like, you’re doing the right thing. Even if it looks crappy, it’s okay.”

Azarenka, 33, will face the only other Grand Slam champion remaining in the draw, 23-year-old Russian-born Kazakh Elina Rybakina, who defeated Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets earlier in the day.

It won’t be easy, but neither will the last ten years. It’s a story of perseverance, but at the heart of it all, it’s Azarenka’s will that stands out. Not only did she survive, but she found a way to excel again. And few things bring more joy than a properly redeemed arc.

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