They pushed each other to their limits throughout their 21 previous battles and together, produce a match-up that has been truly missed on tour.
But while their on-court competitiveness against one another will probably never wane, the two mothers have developed a friendship away from tennis and have supported each other through different circumstances.
Williams says she sought advice from Azarenka during her pregnancy while Azarenka paid tribute to the American’s support throughout her ongoing custody ordeal with the father of her child that had kept her away from tennis since last June.
Both players made a return to competition on Thursday during a special night session at Indian Wells on International Women’s Day.
Williams was making her first competitive singles appearance in 404 days after having her first child Olympia and recovering from a series of life-threatening medical complications post-delivery.
It’s official. My comeback is here. This Thursday I will start playing tennis again professionally for the first time since giving birth to my daughter. This whole month I am playing tournaments in California and Florida- both my home states. Thursday, the day I play my very first match, marks international women’s day. My comeback could not have come on a better day and I decided I wanted to do something different let you all be apart of my long journey back (if you want of course!!) So I created my Serena Gold toned “S” pin. When I am playing you can wear it and show support not only from me but also for my charity which supports the Yetunde Price Resource center. I want this gold “S” mean something special to you personally. What is one S word in your life that means something to you? Mine is Strong and Sure! So when I wear my “S” pin I am representing Strength, and Sureness. What would your “S” mean? They are for now only available for my fans that come see my at Indian wells, and Miami starting Wednesday as well as Thursday when I play!! Sooooo if you are watching me stop by the Serena booth to grab a “S” pin. Post pics of you wearing your “S” and tag me! Thanks for the support I look forward to seeing you out there!!
Azarenka was playing her first match since Wimbledon last June, and is contesting just her third tournament since giving birth to her son Leo in December 2016. Her custody dispute with Leo’s father has prevented her from travelling outside California with her son.
She only found out last week that she could actually come to Palm Springs and compete at the tournament.
Both unseeded and rusty, the two former Indian Wells champions marked their long-awaited returns to action with straight-sets first round victories – Williams over Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas 7-5, 6-3, and Azarenka against Great Britain’s Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.
Williams, who typically steps on court with her game face on could not help but smile as she walked into the stadium to roaring cheers from the crowd welcoming her “home”, While Azarenka was fighting back tears as she stepped on centre court for her clash with Watson.
“For me it’s a real joy to be out here. Sometimes I think about those moments when I was in the hospital, not even realising how serious it was until later, and just being able to come through that this makes me feel like that no matter what happens I know that I’m capable of being strong whether I win or lose, there’s so much more to my life,” said the 36-year-old Williams after her win.
Dressed in all black with a golden ‘S’ pinned to her outfit, Williams impressed with her solid performance. She didn’t face a single break point up until the fourth game of the second set and wrapped up the victory in one hour and 32 minutes.
Speaking to the crowd that gave her an incredible reception, Williams said she felt “it was meant to be” that she would make her comeback on International Women’s Day.
She explained that the ‘S’ pin she was wearing can mean whatever you want it to mean. For her personally, it meant ‘strong’ and ‘sure’.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion assured there was never a question of not coming back to tennis after having her first child because she felt her “story wasn’t over” yet.
So she started training again as soon as she regained her health and is aware that there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to the level she wants from herself.
“I was thinking from zero to Serena, I’m probably just with the ‘S’, I got a little ways to go. But I’ll get there. It’s a journey for me, I’m not going to get there instantly. I’m just going to go for it,” she said.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m not where I want to be but I’m getting there. And that’s one thing I realised. I’m not going to be there today, or next week, or tomorrow, but I will eventually get there.
“And I do have my goals, when I want to peak, and when I don’t want to peak. At some point I just need to start, and just jump and fly. I can do it. Every day is going to be a challenge for me but I know I’ll overcome it and I’m ready to overcome it.”
Williams was in the press conference room while Azarenka was grinding through her battling win over Watson.
“She’s been incredibly helpful,” Williams said of Azarenka.
“When I was pregnant I would text her and I’d ask her questions. She’s always been just so helpful. She’s been great, she’s such a great mum. I got to meet her little baby when he was so young and she’s been working so hard too.”
Azarenka’s issues are far from over but what she can reveal is that she can play Indian Wells and Miami before knowing more about her legal situation.
Her return to the court was an emotional affair that eventually ended with a victory and she sat down with the press after midnight to discuss her difficult past few months.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, to go through what I’ve been going through, but it’s part of life and there are blessings in this situation as well for me,” Azarenka said on Thursday night.
“But it’s definitely been, and still is, a difficult situation to be in and it’s hard to only focus on playing tennis. I probably will never just focus on playing tennis, being a mum, overall by having extra unnecessary things definitely doesn’t make it easier.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s a lost time, it’s unfortunate but it’s part of life. I’m still 28 years old and recently there are No. 1s over 30 so I’m okay with that.”
Azarenka found out she could come to Indian Wells with Leo last Thursday and arrived here Friday night.
“There wasn’t much thinking and planning going on, it was just a waiting game and hoping and praying that I can play and unfortunately this situation is a little bit out of my control so I have to go with the flow and continue to be positive and optimistic and continue to just fight because that’s what I’m best at, just fighting,” she added.
Azarenka, who next faces US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the second round, admits it’s been hard going through so many false starts the past few months, preparing to compete only to find out she cannot.
The two-time major champion has been trying to be consistent with her practice but admits that some days she “couldn’t get out of bed”.
Asked how it felt being part of that iconic night session playing her first match after Williams completed hers, Azarenka said: “It was a little bit nerve-wracking because I feel like there was quite a bit of expectation and I don’t usually watch TV but I saw somebody saying ‘a tough call, who is going to make a better comeback?’ so it was a little nerve-wracking. And watching Serena I thought she played really well and seeing her fight out there that’s all I wanted to do.”
Azarenka says she shares a deeper connection with Williams now that goes beyond their sport.
“She’s been really supportive throughout this whole situation, sending really nice and encouraging messages for sure,” said Azarenka of Williams.
“I’m so proud of her, I’m so supportive of what she’s doing and I think her daughter is adorable and we have another connection which is a lot deeper than tennis I think right now but I think we both can easily say we can’t wait to play against each other on some big stages.”
Serena Williams marked her return to the sport with a straight-sets win over Kazakhstan’s world No. 53 Zarina Diyas to reach the second round in Indian Wells on Thursday.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion posted a 7-5, 6-3 win in one hour and 33 minutes showing impressive form in her first WTA match since January 2017.
Her comeback coincided with International Women’s Day and Serena said it made the moment extra special.
“It was meant to be, I feel,” she said on court after her victory.
“Thank you guys for coming out, it was incredible. It’s been over a year, and a kid later. I get to go home to her now so I’m excited about that. But thanks for supporting me.”
Stepping on a court for her first competitive singles match in 404 days, Serena was met with roars from the near-sellout crowd.
Serena is the last American woman to win this tournament, back in 2001. She entered the match having never lost a set in either of her previous two matches against the 24-year-old Kazakh.
Making her sixth appearance at the tournament – boycotted Indian Wells from 2002 to 2014 – Serena is a two-time champion here in the California desert.
She is bidding to become the first woman to win Indian Wells three times.
Playing under a protected ranking of 22, Serena is unseeded at a tournament for the first time since Cincinnati in 2011.
It was a nervy start from Serena, who slammed back-to-back unforced errors on her first two points but showed immediate signs of her old self when she fired a brilliant return for 30-15.
A backhand return winner gave Serena her first break point of the match but she sent a backhand long to see it slip away and Diyas held for 1-0.
“Welcome home, Serena,” bellowed a supporter in response.
Diyas saved four break points, climbing back from 0-40 down to hold for 3-2.
The world No. 53 was putting pressure on the Serena serve, but the American stayed the course as she made it 4-4, giving out a scream of relief on game point.
“Come on Serena you can do it,” yelled a fan from the stands.
She certainly looked like she could as she broke for 6-5 to put herself in the position to serve for the opening set.
She aced to start the service game and sealed the set on her third opportunity.
The 36-year-old broke at love in game three of the second set to lead 2-1. But her advantage did not last as Diyas finally got her first break point of the match and converted for 2-all.
The next game was a tug of war but Serena eventually got the break on a Diyas double fault. Still the Kazakh pegged her back and they were on level terms again.
Serena screamed in frustration as the break-fest continued with the American inching ahead 4-3. It was the fifth consecutive game to go against serve.
The sequence of breaks finally ended as Serena held for 5-3 and she wrapped up the win minutes later.
There’s a famous field at Indian Wells that players use to warm up for their practices and matches.
During the day, it is flooded with players stretching, jogging, kicking around a football, and doing whatever it is they need to do to prepare for stepping on the court.
Everything enclosed within the perimeter of that field feels like a sports version of the Truman Show and we’re on the sidelines watching in amusement.
I watched Novak Djokovic go through a meticulous stretching routine ahead of his practice session with Kevin Anderson this morning and he seems in good spirits. He chatted to tournament director Tommy Haas as he was warming up, asking him about ticket sales and whatever it is a tournament director takes care of at an event like this.
SHOWBIZ FOR ONE NIGHT
Elsewhere, Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza spoke to reporters about her experience going to the Oscars followed by the Vanity Fair party.
The Spaniard stunned in a black dress at the Academy Awards red carpet and later told us why she’s happy to stick to sports, away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
“It was good, I’m not going to lie. It was a very good experience. It’s not something you go to everyday, so I didn’t want to miss it. I don’t think I’m going to be impressed ever again for whatever camera or red carpet,” she said laughing.
“I prefer more sports for sure. It’s much more simple and clear. It was actually nice to be a part of that die. But it’s a very different world. Sports is much easier, respectful, I don’t know.
“It’s show business. You have to be cool, and do some crazy things I’m sure to be noticed, it’s just different. For us we just go out there and perform and we do our thing. We don’t really depend on who is going to pick, or who wants me in the movie and these kind of things. What we do, it’s just me, it’s in my hands.”