STUTTGART, Germany - Victoria Azarenka has come a long way in three months. The former No.1 and two-time major champion is back on the rise as the clay season kicks off. On Thursday, Azarenka scored her first win over a Top 5 opponent on clay since 2015 after ousting defending champion Karolina Pliskova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.
Azarenka's win over Pliskova is her second Top 5 win in the last three weeks, having earned her first over Angelique Kerber in the semifinals of Monterrey to make her first final since returning from her maternity leave.
A wildcard entry into Stuttgart, where she made the final in her last appearance in 2012, the Belarusian says the defining moment of her season came after her tearful press conference at the Australian Open in January. Having reunited with former coach Wim Fissette, with whom she won the Sunshine Double in 2016 before taking a break to give birth to her son Leo, Azarenka looked poised to storm back up the rankings in 2019. Where better to do that than at the Australian Open, the major she already won twice.
Instead, Azarenka bowed out in the first round to Laura Siegemund. In a candid and emotionally raw post-match press conference, the weight of the cumulative disappointment in her stalled comeback, which was further complicated by her inability to play a full schedule due to the custody situation related to her son Leo, hit Azarenka like a ton of bricks.
"I don't think sitting here today that I failed, but I'm struggling," Azarenka said after the loss in Melbourne. "Failing is if you give up and you don't try. But I'm struggling. If I have to continue to struggle to get out of that, then that's what I'm going to do."
"I've been through a lot of things in my life. And sometimes I wonder why I go through them. But I think they're going to make me stronger. I want to believe that and I'm going to work hard for it. Sometimes I just need a little time and patience and a little support, and that's it."
The results did not come immediately after Melbourne, but anyone watching could see Azarenka's level and confidence grow with each tournament. Her incredible display against Serena Williams in Indian Wells earned praise from all corners of the sport, and a few weeks later she was into the Monterrey final. By ranking, her win over No.4 Pliskova is her best win by ranking on clay since defeating Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid in 2012.
Asked how different she feels as a player and a person from the January, Azarenka said Melbourne felt like a lifetime ago.
"I feel very different, honestly," Azarenka said in Stuttgart. "It was quite a low moment for me, where I had to really reassess and see which direction am I going to go in my personal life, in my tennis as well. It was a defining moment, why I am the way I am today.
"I am more happy, more upbeat, more excited, more motivated. So, that was necessary, obviously.
"But how do I feel different? I think I’ve learned so much about me in these two months, that I’ve never done that in 29 years. And I’m excited about the process of discovering and learning.
"I finally, I think for the first time in my life, understood how to love and enjoy the journey. You know, everybody says enjoy the journey, it’s what it's all about. And you are like, what the hell are you talking about?
"It’s painful, it’s miserable, how do you enjoy that? And apparently, you can. You just got to find a way and stay strong, stay focused, be vulnerable, be open and it works out. It’s exciting, but it took me a while."
"You know, being a public person, being an athlete you always get judged. So, at a certain moment, even though we don’t read comments - we say we don’t but we all do - it still leaves a mark, and over years it can really kind of haunt you, bring you down as well.
"So, if you can differentiate the public opinion and stay true to who you are I think it can be challenging. And hopefully, some young players can also learn a little bit about that and start their personal journey a little earlier."