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.”