Amidst the strangeness of a pandemic and tennis's new normal, Victoria Azarenka rediscovered joy on court to lift the Western & Southern Open trophy last week - the former World No.1's first title in over four years.
Since returning from maternity leave in 2017, Azarenka had struggled to regain the form that took her to two Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013, or even into the Top 30. She posted just one run to a WTA final - in Monterrey last April, retiring due to a leg injury while trailing Garbiñe Muguruza - and one second-week appearance in a Grand Slam, making the fourth round of Wimbledon 2017. After skipping this year's Australian swing, the Belarusian admitted that she had been considering retirement. On re-emerging to give the sport another go, Azarenka was able to play only one match before COVID-19 shut the sport down for half a year.
Entering the Western & Southern Open, Azarenka had been on a four-match losing streak stretching back to the same tournament last year; she had not won consecutive matches since making the third round of Wimbledon 2019. But in the New York bubble, she hit her best form in several years. There was revenge: Azarenka had been 0-2 against Donna Vekic and 0-3 against Caroline Garcia before dispatching them in the first two rounds. There was clutchness: she saved three set points against Garcia and four against Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals to win two crucial tiebreaks. And in the semifinals against Johanna Konta, who had not been broken all week, Azarenka demonstrated why she had been considered one of the best returners in the game at her peak, taking the Briton's serve apart for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win.
A walkover from Naomi Osaka in the final would ensure Azarenka her first title since completing the Sunshine Double at Miami 2016, and her first since becoming a mother - and, consequently, a jump of 32 places in the rankings up to World No.27.
Here are some of the week's other big rankings movers:
Naomi Osaka (+1, 10 to 9): Cincinnati runner-up Naomi Osaka impressed both on and off the court this week, showing off a brand new slice and supreme clutch mentality in tight wins over Anett Kontaveit and Elise Mertens, while also leading the tournament in a pause in play to protest racial injustice.
Johanna Konta (+2, 15 to 13): For seven straight sets, Johanna Konta would go unbroken in Cincinnati as she powered past Kirsten Flipkens, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sakkari en route to the semifinals, where she took a set lead over Victoria Azarenka before falling to the eventual champion.
Elise Mertens (+4, 22 to 18): Having opted to resume play on clay at the start of August, competing in both Palermo and Prague, where she reached the final, Elise Mertens proved the value of matchplay as the Belgian continued in her groove to reach her first Premier 5 semifinal in Cincinnati. Mertens' biggest semifinal since the 2018 Australian Open enables her to return to the Top 20 for the first time since February.
Victoria Azarenka (+32, 59 to 27): Cincinnati champion in 2013 and 2020, the Belarusian became the tournament's second multiple winner this century, joining 2014-15 titlist Serena Williams. Since returning from maternity leave, Azarenka's peak ranking had been a relatively modest World No.38, hit in July last year, but her first title since Miami 2016 vaults her up to its highest since March 2017.
Ons Jabeur (+8, 39 to 31): Another week, another quarterfinal run in the Tunisian's breakout season: prior to the Tour shutdown, Jabeur had followed her maiden Grand Slam last-eight appearance with her first at Premier 5 level in Doha. Last week, she added a second of the latter, routing defending champion Madison Keys 6-4, 6-1 en route, and hits a new career high as a result.
Jessica Pegula (+20, 83 to 63): Already a finalist in Auckland this year, the American became just the fourth qualifier to reach the Cincinnati quarterfinals since it became a Premier 5 event, defeating Lexington champion Jennifer Brady in the first round and No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the third. Pegula is now just eight spots away from her career high of World No.55, which she hit last August after winning her maiden title in Washington.
Christina McHale (+15, 90 to 75): The former World No.24 was another home qualifier to post a strong result in Cincinnati, scoring wins over Daria Kasatkina, Iga Swiatek and Ekaterina Alexandrova to reach the third round - the American's first run to the last 16 of a Premier 5 event or above since Dubai 2017, resulting in her highest ranking since February 2018.
Vera Zvonareva (+92, 270 to 178): Having been sidelined between May 2019 and February 2020 due to a wrist injury, the Russian saw her hard-regained Top 100 ranking slide to World No.476 - and then get frozen in those depths as the Tour was shutdown. But at the age of 35, the former World No.2 is still motivated for another comeback, and displayed some superb form in qualifying and reaching the third round of Cincinnati.
Catherine Bellis (+61, 249 to 188): The American was just four tournaments into her comeback from multiple wrist and arm surgeries when the Tour was paused. But Bellis has picked up where she left off, backing up a Lexington quarterfinal run two weeks ago by qualifying and reaching the second round of Cincinnati, stretching No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka all the way before losing a three-set epic.