Wawrinka, who won his third slam title at Flushing Meadows two years ago, has found life difficult since coming back from knee surgery in January and missed out on automatic entry with his ranking down at 151.
Azarenka returned to the tour last summer after having her first child but a custody battle with the father of her toddler son Leo left her unable to take him outside America and she did not play a tournament between Wimbledon last year and Indian Wells in March.
The Belarusian, twice an Australian Open champion, has been unable to reach her previous heights and was also ranked outside the cut-off for the year’s final grand slam, although she has since climbed back inside the top 100.
Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, the champion in New York 14 years ago, has also been given a wild card.
Andy Murray’s US Open preparations were cut short on Monday as he suffered an opening round exit in Cincinnati to Frenchman Lucas Pouille but the Brit remains positive as he looks ahead to his first Grand Slam in over a year.
Just seven matches into his comeback from hip surgery, Murray rued a poor first-set performance in his 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 loss against Pouille.
“Today’s start of the match was not good at all. It was a pretty bad first set, and then after that, got a little bit better. Managed to hang in a little bit in the second set. I lost the first service game. I was 40-15 up and was quite a long game, that one. And then had a few little chances on his serve as the set went on but wasn’t able to take them,” explained Murray, who had never a lost a set to Pouille in any of their four previous meetings.
“I physically felt okay. It’s quick conditions here. It’s pretty fast. Obviously when I played Washington, slightly slower, also played a couple of matches in the evening there, was quite slow, whereas here obviously quite lively. And I feel like he was a little bit sharper than me out there. I maybe wasn’t reacting as quickly to some shots I would have liked.”
Murray has won just four matches since his return to action in June and is still in the early stages of his comeback.
The 31-year-old, now ranked 375 in the world, is getting ready to compete in his first major since Wimbledon last year and is still unsure how his body will react to best-of-five play.
“I kind of need to see once I’m in that position. I have played, four three-set matches and a couple long ones in Washington. Although I didn’t feel great, I managed to get through them,” said Murray, who reached the quarter-finals in DC before deciding to withdraw from the tournament to take care of his body.
“Hopefully with another couple of weeks and training, and I’m still quite early in this process, I think that’s the seventh match I have played, so hopefully each week will feel better and I can keep working on things.”
Murray spent five days off the tennis court after Washington to focus on rehab and fitness work and admits the stop-and-start is currently affecting his consistency.
He isn’t too discouraged by the three losses he has suffered so far this season, acknowledging they came against quality opponents.
“It has been hard. And also some of the matches that I lost, as well, like today, although it wasn’t the best tennis match – it didn’t feel like I played a good first set at all – I only lost four more points in the match than him. It was tight,” said Murray of his performance against Pouille.
“He’s a top-20 player. I lost against Nick [Kyrgios in Queens] , and that was another really close match, as well. So although, obviously I would have liked the results to have been a bit better, matches and the guys I have lost against have been three top-20 players and wasn’t far off winning two of those matches. So there has been some positives there.
“And if I can improve by kind of 10, 15 per cent, you turn a lot of those matches around, as well. So I think also as the year goes on, maybe some of the events I play are maybe not as strong maybe later in the year, so draws can be a little bit different. But, yeah, you need to try and string more matches together. But it’s tricky in these events. If you’re not seeded, you play top, top quality players early on.”
Meanwhile, another player on the comeback trail from surgery, Stan Wawrinka, claimed a confidence-boosting 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory over No. 12 seed Diego Schwartzman in the Cincinnati first round on Monday.
Never gets old… Another breathtaking backhand from Stan the Man.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) August 13, 2018
The Swiss three-time Grand Slam champion, who had double-knee surgery a year ago, won back-to-back matches for the first time since February last week in Toronto en route to the last-16, where he fell in two close sets to Rafael Nadal.
He is 9-12 win-loss this season and next faces Kei Nishikori in round two in Mason, Ohio.
“Those are the kind of matches that I’m looking for. It’s important for my confidence. It’s important for my game. I think to beat a player like Diego, it’s not only important for confidence but it show that I’m playing well, I’m moving well. He’s in the top-20 in the world, so it’s a big win already,” said Wawrinka of his triumph over Schwartzman.
“I do trust my body. Now I need to trust my mind, also. I need to get used to those match, tough match, get used to those moments where you need to not think too much about what’s happening but just play your game.”
Wawrinka added: “My body is, where it is right now, is I think really strong, really good, but still some up-and-downs. Still there is a lot of things that I don’t know how it will react when I’m going to play a five-set match, when I’m going to win hopefully a five-set match back-to-back, things like that, if I start to win more matches. For sure I need to get used to again to push my body to the limit, winning match after match and keep playing, keep moving my best.
“Today I was really positive, because I was feeling a little bit tired. I was feeling a little bit heavy legs, but I still find a way to win. I still find a way to move better. And I know that by pushing myself I will get where I want to be.”
When you think of professional athletes, you instantly imagine them as strong, ruthless, untouchable… it’s an image they strive to project as well.
They are coached from a young age not to show emotion, to conceal their weaknesses and portray an impenetrable façade. When they crack, it’s breaking news. When they break a racquet or scream or cry, it’s immediately GIFed and replayed thousands of times on the internet. The constant scrutiny discourages them from exhibiting how they really feel most of the time. To them, confessing to being vulnerable comes at a price they’re not necessarily willing to pay.
Last week, Serena Williams shared a revealing post on social media, where she admitted her struggles at balancing her life as a professional tennis player and a mother to 11-month-old Olympia. The message she posted came on the heels of her heaviest ever defeat on tour – a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Johanna Konta in her opening match in San Jose. She then pulled out of Montreal citing “personal reasons”.
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom,” said the 36-year-old Williams.
She then went on to discuss “postpartum emotions” and assured that it’s “totally normal” to feel she wasn’t doing enough for her baby. She wanted other mothers to know they are not alone.
“I think it’s really important to just, first of all, whether it’s publicly or not, just to talk about it to someone. This is a whole new position that I’m in. I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, but I have never been through this, having a baby and feeling with the emotions and the ups and downs and the fears and the excitement, quite frankly,” explained Williams on Monday following her 6-1, 6-2 opening round win over Daria Gavrilova.
“I just love talking about it, because I feel like a lot of people have those same emotions and they don’t have the same platform as I have. And mostly I want women out there to know that if I’m going through it and, I know you’re going through it, then we’re in this together. Everyone, no matter who we are, kind of always have the same feelings.”
Williams has been praised by her peers on tour for being so forthcoming about her emotions and on Monday, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki stressed on how important it is for someone like the American 23-time Grand Slam champion to send out such a strong message.
Azarenka, a mother to 20-month-old Leo, has had her fair share of difficulty off the court over the past year as she continues to deal with a custody battle with the father of her child.
Even after a hard-earned 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 win over Carla Suarez Navarro on Monday in Cincinnati, Azarenka looked visibly dejected and could not hide how she felt.
“I think I’m struggling a little bit with finding the joy on the court because it’s been such a tough time and it’s still a tough time for me. So I think it’s just not a very exciting time for me personally,” said the Belarusian ex-world No. 1, who is competing in Cincinnati courtesy of a wildcard.
“I have no idea, I honestly don’t know where I’m at.”
Azarenka, who has spoken openly in the past about how supportive she and Williams have been of each other, would not elaborate on what is upsetting her at the moment but said it was “a little bit of everything”.
She commended Williams on her recent social media post and concedes it’s not easy to be as transparent online.
”I think that it’s really amazing that she shared that and I think that we are always portrayed to be tough, that we’re fighters and everything but we’re all human and we all have feelings – I mean look at me right now,” said Azarenka.
“It’s pretty easy to just say ‘oh, they’re athletes, they’re tough, they need to be focused’, but we’re human beings and we have feelings. Our feelings sometimes get hurt, you feel insecure, you feel all those types of emotions, they’re there, and it’s just a matter of – I feel like stronger people can admit to those feelings and work through them and just not give up and keep going. And the weaker people are the ones who give up and don’t face that and just try to ignore the emotions.”
The 29-year-old added: “I think in society now, with social media and everything everybody’s life is so perfect and then you look and you’re like, oh God you feel so sh*** about your life, when you look on someone’s social media. The reality is different and I think there’s too much of fabricated happiness, like everything’s okay.
“I think it’s very important to share those things [like Serena has done] and important for players to express those feelings and hoping you’re not going to be judged for it. But I think that’s not going to happen. I just have to stay fighting through it and keep going.”
Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed in Cincinnati and a close friend of Williams, echoed Azarenka’s sentiments.
“I think as a professional athlete, being in the spotlight all the time and being judged for everything you do. You can’t have a bad day because it’s instantly written about or talked about. I think that’s hard,” said the reigning Australian Open champion.
“You learn from an early age that you just kind of need to suck it up, you need to keep going, you need to not show weakness. We learn if you lose a tough match don’t show weakness, if you’re having a terrible day, don’t show everyone you’re struggling.
“It’s just how it is in sports and I think it’s nice for someone like Serena or other players that people really look up to and respect to show that even though we are who we are, we don’t always have perfect days and we don’t always know what the right thing to do is and we don’t always have everything figured out.”
Wozniacki continued: “It’s something that people I think were scared to talk about in the past but it’s great that we can actually take hand of that now and I think talking about stuff like that also makes it easier to find a solution.”
Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!