By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) – Victoria Azarenka cannot wait to renew her rivalry with close friend Serena Williams in what could shape up to become a future battle of the tennis mums.
For a change, Azarenka, who has four wins and 17 defeats against Williams, is a step ahead of the American having given birth to son Leo in December — a day, she says, represented a “180 degree” turn in her life.
While the former world number one and twice Australian Open champion resumes her career this week in Mallorca, Williams’s baby is due in September with the American to return next year.
“I’ve been friends off the court with Serena for a long time and I’m very happy for her,” Azarenka told Reuters as she prepared for her comeback on the Mallorcan grasscourts.
“First of all I was so happy when she said she was pregnant but when I first heard I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never have the chance to play against her again.’ I was a little sad.
“But it’s incredible that she’s coming back and I know that hopefully we’ll face each other more times.”
Azarenka, 27, has always been one of the most ferocious competitors on the women’s circuit.
Tennis has been all-consuming — a diet of practise, tournaments, gym sessions and the all-too-regular rehabilitations from injury.
Since becoming a mum, however, there is a new Azarenka.
“Having Leo has changed my life 180 degrees,” the Belarusian explained. “I love every moment of being a mum. But now I have two different mentalities.
“When I’m on the court, the only reason I’m there is that I love the game and I still have so much potential to improve. When I’m there I give 100 percent every time.
“But after that I’m in a different mode. I switch off. That has always been so hard in the past.
“I used to come back and watch tennis or talk about tennis, or check tennis on the internet. Now with Leo, it’s easy to forget it.
“Whenever I come back from practise I just want to spend time with Leo, read books, swim in the pool, regular stuff. He is a good napper too. When I’m practise he usually naps.”
Azarenka, who is back on a protected ranking, believes the enforced 12-month break can help her become an even better player than before and maybe emulate Kim Clijsters, who returned after starting a family to win three of her four major titles.
“I’m managing my time better now,” she said. “I get better quality time now. When it comes to practise I used to get there and talk and laugh, and waste some time.
“Now I’m just there for one reason. I’m there, then I’m gone. I have a limited time and I need to make the best of it. You have a short time to have your priorities straight, to give it all for the sport you love, but it doesn’t end here.
“Tennis is not forever.
“So for me to be able to continue my career with having already had a child, it’s more meaningful. You can still chase your dream but I have a much bigger life purpose now.
“Hopefully what Kim did and what hopefully Serena and I can do can inspire more women to do the same. It’s a stereotype that only male players can succeed after having kids.”
Azarenka is used to making comebacks.
A foot injury kept her off court for five months in 2014 and she has suffered niggling injuries since. Her last tournament, the 2016 French Open, was curtailed by a knee injury.
So this break from the game has been a happier one as it also allowed her to spend time with partner Billy McKeague, rediscover her roots in Minsk and support her mother, Ala, who has successfully fought cancer.
“Emotionally it’s completely different,” she said. “Absence because of injuries is a disappointment. But this was for a very happy reason and I think it can help me.
“It was nice to experience the vibes in Minsk again. And it’s given me time to work hard on my body, make sure I’m strong and can come back injury free,” she said.
“I never really had that time before. I didn’t really expect to play this early. I don’t know how I’m going to do. But I’m ready to play and grind again and play a lot of matches.
“Just need time to get the rhythm back. I don’t know how long that will take but I will get there. Definitely. It’s going to be fun.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)