Victoria Azarenka overcame home favourite Heather Watson in a two-hour, five-minute tussle to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon, in just her second tournament back from maternity leave.
The ex-world No1 beat Watson 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to book a last-16 showdown with Simona Halep.
“I’m happy to be here. I’m still very ambitious and focused. I’m not on a cloud nine for making it to the second week, but I do appreciate everything that I have been able to achieve right now, and I don’t take anything for granted,” said new mum Azarenka.
“I’m still in the tournament. I can’t be too happy. I’m never really satisfied until it’s done.”
Great Britain’s Johanna Konta, the No6 seed, eased past Greece’s Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-1, to set up a fourth round against French No21 seed Carolina Garcia.
Konta is bidding to become the first British woman to win singles at Wimbledon since Virginia Wade 40 years ago. She is currently the bookmakers’ favourite for the title.
“I have said that everyone in the draw is in with a chance of taking the title. I think I’m pretty sure favorites also come and go. They change daily almost,” said Konta. “I’m just here, happy to have actually made it into the second week, happy to come through three battles this week. Again, very much taking it one match at a time. But definitely working towards staying involved for a full two weeks.”
Rafael Nadal was in brutal form against ATP NextGen star Karen Khachanov, as he beat the Russian 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (3), to reach the second week at Wimbledon for the first time since 2014. Nadal next takes on Luxembourg’s No16 seed Gilles Muller
“It’s obvious that it’s a tough opponent, no? He came here playing good matches on grass, semifinals in Halle one week and a half ago, playing good match in semi-finals,” Nadal said of Khachanov.
“Yeah, I think was a tough one. For a set and a half I was playing fantastic, then little bit worst. But in general terms very well, very happy.”
World No217 Sebastian Ofner, 21, has made a stunning run to the third round at Wimbledon, making it through the qualifying rounds before upsetting Thomaz Bellucci and No17 seed Jack Sock in the first two rounds of the main draw.
Here are a few things to know about the 1.91m Austrian, who faces Alexander Zverev in the third round on Saturday…
1 – He had never played a tour-level main draw prior to this fortnight
Ofner’s only ever attempt to play a tour-level tournament was in Vienna last year, where he lost in the second round of qualifying.
2 – He had never played on grass prior to this fortnight
“I never played before on grass, and now I’m in the third round, so I can’t believe it either,” he told reporters after his win over Sock on Thursday.
3 – Three months ago, he was playing a $15k ITF event in Greece
Ofner was playing on the ITF circuit up until last April. He reached a Challenger final in Mestre in May, which boosted his ranked just in time for the cut-off for Wimbledon qualifying.
“I can’t believe it. I played some Challengers before and I saw that I’m not too far away from good players. Now maybe something in the head has clicked, I think that’s it,” he says.
4 – He has played 18 sets so far in the last 13 days
Ofner’s path from Wimbledon qualifying through the main draw third round has been one big battle after the other. He started his qualifying campaign by beating Kimmer Coppejans 10-8 in the third, was down two-sets-to-love against Great Britain’s Jay Clarke in the final round of qualifying before he won in five, and also played a five-setter against Sock in the second round on Thursday.
“Now I’m feeling pretty good. A little bit I feel my body but it’s okay. I don’t feel it that much,” he insists.
5 – He is coached by Dominic Thiem’s father, Wolfgang Thiem
He has practiced multiple times with Dominic Thiem, who has made sure to congratulate him after each match win this fortnight.
6 – The prize money he has made at Wimbledon is more than double what he has earned his entire career
Ofner’s entire career earnings coming into the Championships has amounted to $46,193. His third round run at Wimbledon will earn him a $116,000.
“Sure now I’m making lots of points and it will help me to play maybe ATP qualifying and maybe be seeded in Challengers. Sure the money is a lot, more than double I’ve earned till know in my whole career. I’ll save it and looking forward,” he says.
7 – He only started practicing seriously at age 19
Unlike his fellow 21-year-olds, Ofner only start training seriously at the advanced age of 19. Before that, he was in school.
“I finished school at 19, so until I was 19 I wasn’t practicing that much and I know that other players my age that they stopped school. So now I’ve been training for two years really professionally, without a second, let’s say hobby. I wanted to play junior, in juniors I wasn’t good, I was 400 (in the world). I wanted to start at 17 but that year I was injured, and also body-wise I was pretty small and thin. I was growing, at 20 I was still growing. So that’s why I wasn’t a good junior,” he explains.
8 – His favourite player growing up was Roger Federer
“Nothing is impossible. For women, that’s definitely true.”
That is Victoria Azarenka’s message to the world as she marches on at Wimbledon just seven months after having her first child, Leo.
The Belarusian ex-world No1 is into the fourth round at the All England Club in just her second tournament back from maternity leave.
And just as she was inspired by the likes of Kim Clijsters, who won three Grand Slams after having her first child, Azarenka hopes to serve as a strong example for other tennis players who may wish to follow suit and make a comeback to the professional tour with a baby in tow.
Azarenka joined a small group of tennis-playing mothers that includes world No74 Tatjana Maria, No80 Evgeniya Rodina and No112 Kateryna Bondarenko, on tour.
Serena Williams, who won the Australian Open during the early stages of her pregnancy, plans on returning to the sport next year, even suggesting that her comeback can be as early as January in Australia.
Luxembourg’s world No82 Mandy Minella played both singles and doubles at Wimbledon this week while four and a half months pregnant and also wants to come back to tennis next year.
She found out she was pregnant in Miami last March, the day before her match with Svetlana Kuznetsova, and after consulting with her doctors, who told her it was absolutely safe, she decided to continue competing on tour, with Wimbledon being her final event before she delivers her baby.
“I’m 31 now. I really thought I’d finish my career and I’ll have a family after. Now it happened, and my ranking was really good at the time, I think I was top-70, so it’s just a good opportunity to come back afterwards. I have an opportunity to play Grand Slams again, to play big tournaments,” explained Minella following her first round defeat in doubles alongside Anastasija Sevastova.
“I’d like to get back in shape also for me, and I would like to finish on my terms as well. We’ll see where it will bring me.”
Motherhood on the women’s tennis tour is not unheard of, but it’s also not too common. Three women have won Grand Slams as mothers in the past: with Clijsters winning three, Margaret Court also bagging a trio and Evonne Goolagong Cawley claiming two.
The world marveled at the fact the Serena won the Australian Open while pregnant and people were even more surprised to learn how far along Minella is in her pregnancy at Wimbledon this week.
“The doctors were really relaxed with it, I was surprised because I thought that maybe they would be cautious. Some said even ‘maybe at six months the belly will get in your way’ and I was like maybe six months I won’t do that,” said Minella.
“I think it’s different for every woman, everybody feels different, so I would really encourage pregnant women to do sports and to continue their activity – I wouldn’t say to start something completely new, but I think that pregnancy does not stop your lifestyle. I would like to be an example for (someone who was able to) keep going and I think it’s good.”
Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, says traveling with a child has been the trickiest part of her tennis comeback so far, but finds the whole experience quite amazing.
She said she drew inspiration from Kerri Walsh Jennings, the most decorated beach volley player in Olympic history who won gold at the London 2012 Games while five weeks pregnant.
“I just think that it’s not as scary as people think sometimes. It definitely has – it’s a lot of conscious decision that you have to make to give yourself that break and be able to work hard and start really, you know, physically, a little bit from zero,” explained the 27-year-old Azarenka.
“But I do believe that if you’re very passionate about what you do and what you love to do, that you can do that. The guys have the luxury to never stop their career and for girls it’s tougher.
“But I think it’s possible. Even before me, we had players do this. Like Kim Clijsters and a lot of girls who are maybe less ranked so their story isn’t as big.
“It is possible. One of my biggest inspirations was Kerri Walsh that came back after three kids and still playing for gold medal.”
Minella hopes people start realising how tough women are, not just in the sports world, but in the professional landscape in general. She watched Serena win in Melbourne and was full of praise for the American superstar.
“She’s amazing, pregnant or not pregnant,” said Minella of Serena.
“I think women are tough, not only on tour, just worldwide. I think in many countries, women are doing really tough jobs, working hard. In the first months when they find out they’re pregnant, they can’t put their foot on the table so I think it’s good to see what everybody’s capable of.”
While tournaments on the men’s tour have daycare facilities and other advantages for players who travel with their wives and children, the women’s tour is not as family-friendly. Azarenka says she’s in discussions with the WTA in order to negotiate the basic needs that would help tennis-playing mothers on the circuit.
“From my own power, I’ll do anything to make that happen, because I think it’s really important. The guys do have that luxury of having the nurseries and stuff at every event and I think it’s time for women to have the same benefit,” said Azarenka. “Because I think for women is much more important and harder.”
Germany’s Tatjana Maria, who has a three and a half year old daughter, returned to the tour just four months after having her baby. Her husband is also her coach, and they’ve been traveling on the circuit as a family for over three years.
Maria hopes conditions for mothers can improve at WTA tournaments and says even the Slams don’t all provide the same facilities.
“The best crèche (daycare) is here at Wimbledon. It’s like a real crèche, you bring your child, they eat together, they do activities, it’s like a real one here. It’s nice,” said Maria.
“In Roland Garros they don’t give food. In Australian Open you have only a little room and no windows, you can be maximum eight kids. So you bring her when you play a match then you take her out because there’s not enough space. At the US Open, they don’t really care so much.”
Azarenka used her maternity leave to make changes to her serve and she admits she probably would have never had time to work on such things had she been on tour during that time. Maria also made a drastic change in her game when she was out, switching from a double-handed to a single-handed backhand.
She was more concerned about how she was going to play with her new backhand than how it would be traveling the tour with a baby daughter.
“I was never scared to come back with a child, this was not a scary part for me, it was more about how I was going to play, how I was going to hit my backhand, how I was going to feel on court,” explains Maria.
“But it wasn’t that I was scared to have a child on tour or to not manage to have her with us all the time.
“It’s the most beautiful thing in the world, it’s so nice if you play a match and after you go to her and you see her, it doesn’t matter how you play, she’s always happy. If you win, she says ‘aaah mama she won a tropy’, if you don’t she says ‘oh it doesn’t matter’. She’s learning also how to win and to lose so it’s nice.”
Maria is hoping that the fact high-profile players like Azarenka, and possibly Serena, competing on the circuit as mothers can encourage tournaments to better accommodate children.
She finds that it gets a bit trickier as the child gets older because they require more entertainment and are much more active.
Minella is not worried about her return to the sport, and believes tournaments will soon make the necessary improvements for mothers.
“I think it will come little by little because I think the women on the tour are getting older so it will be natural that a lot of women will have children and come back,” says Minella.
“I think the tournaments will adapt. They did already adapt a lot because also the men travel with their families now so I think when I come there will be already many improvements.”
Right now, the tour offers discount on medical insurance if you’re a full member to cover the birth.
Players can return to the sport with the same ranking within a year from the date of the child’s birth.
And while it is not a rule, tournaments are encouraged to offer car seats as part of official transportation and accommodate players in kid-friendly hotels.
But it’s fair to expect tournaments will start doing more for mothers in the future, with Azarenka and others raising issues with the WTA.
Lindsay Davenport, who played for a year after having her first child before retiring, is thrilled to see the support the likes of Azarenka and Serena are getting.
“I played for about a year, but it was different even then. I love the atmosphere that is around now, it’s a much more building up atmosphere for these players,” said the ex-world No1.
“Still it is amazing, I think Azarenka got the question yesterday ‘was she inspired to come back from Roger?’ in her press. Women still face these fascinating questions about still managing – it’s very different for a woman and a man. Obviously physically but also just in terms of having children then going off to work.
“I love that these women are being so celebrated. The message that Serena is giving is the most phenomenal message and I can’t wait to see how her story writes itself in the next couple of years.”