Victoria Azarenka has taken countless flights throughout her career but she admits the plane she boarded to come to Madrid with her son Leo to compete in her first European tournament in 10 months was extra special.
The Belarusian had been locked in a custody battle with the father of her child that had prevented her from traveling outside the state of California with Leo.
The ex-world No. 1 was limited to playing just two tournaments this season, in Indian Wells and Miami, which were her first since Wimbledon last year.
But it seems a breakthrough in the custody case has allowed her to travel to Spain to take part in the Mutua Madrid Open and it was a double celebration for Azarenka when she kicked off her campaign with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Aleksandra Krunic to make the second round.
Azarenka had Leo in December 2016 and returned from her maternity leave last year during the grass season. But she only played two events, in Mallorca and Wimbledon, before being forced to stay away from the circuit.
Madrid is her first clay event in two years and her win over Krunic, that set up a second round clash with Karolina Pliskova, was Azarenka’s first victory on the surface since Madrid 2016.
“I was so happy to be on that plane, you have no idea. You have no idea how happy I was to just have fresh European air, European food, everything. I’m so happy to be out of the United States for now,” Azarenka said after her win on Sunday.
Currently ranked No. 99 in the world, Azarenka played just eight matches in total heading into Madrid, but she stunningly made the semi-finals in Miami in March.
“I’m focused on tennis as much as I can. But Miami just kind of gave me a lot of self-satisfaction, without having that preparation. Without having stability or anything like that, I’m still able to produce a high level of tennis,” said the 28-year-old.
“It does give me just that boost that I can do anything I want. I just need to be able to have stability, to practice, and to play matches.”
When Azarenka showed up at Indian Wells two months ago for the first time in eight months, it was a last-minute decision made on the eve of the tournament after things swung her way in her legal issues.
This time wasn’t much different but she was preparing for the clay season hoping her plans would materialise. She confirms she will be contesting Rome, Roland Garros, Mallorca and Wimbledon over the next three months.
“I have [been practicing on clay], but on a really sh**** clay. On green clay in the States, it’s horrible, which made me appreciate the red clay much more. I came here, all the bad bounces looked amazing, so maybe it’s a good thing,” Azarenka said with a smile.
“I found out close to the end of April that I could [come]. But I tried to stay focused on my training a lot more this time. I’ve done a little bit of better preparation overall. I’m trying to get a little bit more stability right now.”
There is something incredibly endearing about world No. 1 Simona Halep.
While other star athletes are often admired for their sheer dominance, Halep’s most charming quality is arguably her vulnerability.
The world felt her heartbreak when she blew a significant lead to lose the French Open final to unseeded teenager Jelena Ostapenko in Paris 11 months ago. Halep later rallied to end 2017 as world No. 1.
The world felt her pain when she injured her ankle in the first match of the Australian Open last January. Then stood in awe as she battled through the hurt to save five match points en route to the final there.
Her ability to bridge the gap between her lows and highs, and remain shockingly transparent throughout the process gives us a chance to join her on this incredible ride.
Still chasing a maiden Grand Slam title after losing three finals, Halep is back on happy hunting ground in Madrid, where she is the two-time defending champion this week, carrying a 12-match winning streak at the tournament.
The Romanian, who opens her campaign against Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday, sat down with Sport360 in the Spanish capital to discuss her journey to the top, her Grand Slam dream, and how she’s learning to accept her shortcomings.
From the outside, your clay season last year looked like it was almost perfect. How would you describe it?
Yes, last year was almost perfect because I won here, I played two finals. But perfect, perfect means that I could win the Grand Slam but it didn’t happen and I was really sad. But I take the experience from last year and hopefully this year it’s going to be close.
In Melbourne, saving all those match points on your way to the final after getting injured in your opener… it felt like you broke the fear barrier…
Yes I can say that I broke that barrier, it was a tough tournament physically for me. It’s the first time when I feel that I was… the energy was gone during the match. I made a great effort during the two weeks, I was injured in the first match and I still kept fighting. So I think I took more confidence in myself in that way, also the game was really good. I feel like I’m a complete player now and I try just to stay positive during the matches because I have everything else to win tournaments.
You told me in Indian Wells that you have been working with someone to learn to be kinder to yourself. How do you go about doing that?
She’s a psychologist, Alexis is her name. It’s great to have someone to talk about, just to give you ideas how to treat yourself and also to accept yourself when I miss. I am much better in that way and I really enjoy the time now. I’m happier, I’m smiling more, so the life is more beautiful.
You obviously set very high standards for yourself, have you always been that way, even in school?
Yes, I was like this, but in school it was a little bit harder because the priority was tennis but always I wanted to be okay in school as well, which I was.
What was it like growing up in Constanta and what qualities do you think you picked up from the environment you were raised in?
I think the education from home. I have great parents and they really educated me well to be a good person and also to fight for my chance, to believe that I am able to do some big things and I think that’s why I touched the No. 1 in the world.
As world No. 1, you’re a leader in this sport, are there any issues you wish to fight for or shed some light on? We’ve seen someone like Venus Williams in the past spearhead the fight for equal prize money…
Not for the moment but I think they have done a great job, Venus fighting for equal prize money. Billie Jean King has done a great job, so all the girls who are older than me a little bit and are more into this they do a great job. I’m not that much into this, I’m more relaxed. I’m just looking forward to play every match I have and just enjoying tennis but they are there, they are strong and they can change things.
The men have talked about trying to get a bigger share of money from the Grand Slams, do you think the women should be part of that conversation?
Yes I think so, because it’s normal. I think we keep the attention a lot of the people now. You can see the final in Melbourne, it was packed and it was really a good event for everybody and they enjoyed it and they liked it, so I think the women have to be in that conversation for sure.
You’ve talked about how much you want to win a Grand Slam, how do you find the fine line between going for that big goal and becoming too obsessed with it?
I’m not obsessed for sure and I don’t make a drama that I don’t have a Grand Slam but the desire is big. Maybe I should stop thinking about it, to put the desire lower, but I’m happy, I’m okay and I’m not stressed about it. If it’s going to happen, if not, it’s nothing dramatic.
What was it like doing that Elle cover and what was your reaction when it came out?
It was great, I had a lot of fun and I had a great time with the guys that were doing this, they were really great. I enjoyed it, I was happy when I saw the cover and I like the pictures.
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) April 25, 2018
Is that something that perhaps a few years ago you wouldn’t have done?
In the past I was more stressed about this sport and I was focusing only on practicing and only on tournaments. Now I’m trying to relax myself, I enjoy more the life and it’s much better.
They sometimes say ‘it’s lonely at the top’ and tennis can often be a lonely sport. Does it feel like that for you sometimes?
You feel lonely sometimes on court when you have to put all the energy and all your power to win that match. But in the rest I don’t feel lonely. I have great people around me, I have a good team. My family is always next to me, friends, very close friends that I have, so I don’t feel lonely in life but during the matches sometimes you feel it.
Rafael Nadal once said that he’s at a point where he is constantly playing through the pain. You’ve had your fair share of injury issues, do you feel like you’re always playing through pain?
No, not yet, maybe I’m still young. So maybe in five years, like Rafa’s age, I will be the same but for the moment I have little injuries but when I play I don’t feel pain.
What’s the coolest thing you got to do because of your success as a tennis player?
When I was invited to see the concert of Andrea Bocelli. It was a really great feeling and I felt that because of what I’m doing in sport, I’m there.
Garbine Muguruza said in Dubai, that when she was No. 1 in the world, she felt like an alarm was sounding the whole time and that people were constantly gunning for her. How does it feel for you?
I don’t feel that. I feel like the people are changing now, since I’m No. 1, they’re more, they’re coming more at me, but I don’t feel negative things, I feel just positive. And of course I feel the pressure a little bit more because they expect all the time to win the matches but I take it like something normal. The real people from tennis know it’s really impossible to win every match you play.
Caroline Wozniacki is grateful there is no Rafael Nadal on the women’s tour to sweep all the clay titles and she hopes she can make use of that and find success on her least favourite surface this season.
Only four of Wozniacki’s 28 titles have come on clay but the world No. 2 had a decent campaign on the dirt last year, making the quarter-finals at the French Open and Charleston.
This week in Madrid, the Australian Open champion is seeded No. 2 and she begins her tournament against Australia’s Daria Gavrilova.
“It’s a love-hate relationship I would say,” Wozniacki says of her relationship with clay.
“Some days I really like it and I think it’s fine and some days I really don’t like it. I’m just trying to keep a positive mindset going into this clay season and work on a few things. As you get older you get more experience and you kind of know more what to do out there and I’m just trying to take advantage of that.”
The 27-year-old had a good run in Madrid in 2009, reaching the final before losing to Dinara Safina but has made it past the third round just once since then.
“I think I always believe in myself and I think that the great thing for me is that I don’t think that there’s one player that is a clay-court specialist. It’s not like we have a Rafa on the women’s tour that you just know, you play him and you may as well just go home,” said Wozniacki, referring to Nadal’s incredible dominance on the surface.
“I think that’s the great thing. I think it’s really open, especially on the clay, and I think anyone could win and that’s why I’ll try and take advantage of that.”
Day one of the women’s action at the Caja Magica on Saturday saw fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina ease past Alize Cornet 6-2, 6-2 to make the second round. The Ukrainian has never made it past round two in Madrid and she’ll be looking to change that in her next match against either Carla Suarez Navarro or Barbora Strycova.
Seventh-seeded Caroline Garcia eased past former runner-up Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 7-5 while Stuttgart champion Karolina Pliskova extended her winning streak to six matches with a 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Russia’s Elena Vesnina.
Her twin sister Kristyna also had a good day, securing a place in the main draw with a qualifying victory over Ana Bogdan 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.
“For our family, for our father and mother, it’s amazing. There are not many days like this,” a laughing Karolina told a small group of reporters, as per WTA Insider. “It’s always one won, one lost, so at half. So when both win, they’re very happy.”
Eighth-seeded Venus Williams fell to Estonian Anett Kontaveit 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, to become the highest seeded player to crash out on opening day.