NEW YORK, NY, USA - Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka soared into the third round of the US Open, avenging a 2019 loss to No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka in style, 6-1, 6-3.
"Confidence comes before you win," Azarenka said during her on-court interview. "If you believe in yourself and your work, you're already confident and results are a confirmation of your hard work. If you don't believe in yourself before you get results, you'll never get them."
Afterwards, she said that their encounter a year ago had not been on her mind. "I haven't really looked that much to last year," she explained. "I think it was a little different circumstances for me. What I took out from that match was a little bit of understanding of her game, because it was the first time that we played. So I think that I was maybe a little bit more aware of the game, but I didn't really look back too much. Last year I was winning and I was up, and then I lost the momentum. I think it's easy to get caught up in that, but I'm happy I didn't. I really am. It was a new match, new day. It was a lot of fun for me to go out there and play, and that's it."
The two-time Australian Open champion finished runner-up in Flushing Meadows in 2012 and 2013, and is a win away from her first second week appearance since 2015 after barreling past her countrywoman in 66 minutes under the Louis Armstrong Stadium roof.
The Belarusians last battled on this very court last year, with Sabalenka surviving in three sets in what would be Azarenka's final match of the year. Sabalenka went on to end 2019 with a Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open title defense and a maiden Hengquin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai victory.
"I'm really happy that two Belarusian are showing such great tennis on the biggest stages in the world, so I'm really proud of that. Sharing the court with Aryna is a pleasure for me; I saw her when she was growing up, and I'm really glad that she's playing really well. When you face someone you want to beat them, but that's only on the court. Last year she won, so this year I had to play better. I knew how dangerous she is, and I feel like I'm a better player this year. I changed a couple things and was able to finish it today."
After struggling at the start of 2020, Azarenka came to life at the Western & Southern Open, winning her first title since giving birth to son Leo, and dropped just three games against Barbara Haas in the first round.
Afterwards, Azarenka told press that there was no "one thing that changed everything" in terms of her training, she had altered her mindset to competition - with the pandemic pause a surprising boon in this regard.
"I have changed the way I do practice," she said. "I took the fear of failing away from myself, which has been really powerful for me to progress. In terms of am I hitting forehand the same way or I'm hitting backhand the same way, I think those things are pretty similar. But I think the way I approach the court, the way I approach doing fitness, you know, everything related to my job has been changed in the way of the perception that I feel. And, you know, COVID has been a terrible thing, but for me, it got me to pause and really overview a lot of things for myself.
"And I knew if I had to do this last comeback, I have to do things differently. I can't keep trying going into that same circle, you know, every time: Oh, you were like this in 2012, 2013. No, I don't even remember how it was. So I knew I needed to find new ways to be able to progress, to be happy on the court, and to keep moving forward."
By contrast, Sabalenka capped off the year's Middle East Swing with a third career Premier 5 title at the Qatar Total Open, sweeping past two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in straight sets. Since the tour resumed, however, the No.5 seed has been less imperious, playing her first straight-set match since February to defeat Océane Dodin in the first round at Flushing Meadows.
While Azarenka kept her stat sheet clean to start the match, Sabalenka struggled to find her range from the onset, losing the first four games before finally getting on the board. Still, it was an error-strewn set for the 22-year-old, who made 17 to just three winners.
The No.5 seed sought to put her stamp on the second set by quickly earning break points to start, but Azarenka, who hit an even five winners and errors in the first set, saved both and soon moved ahead 3-0.
Though Sabalenka clawed back to nearly level terms two games later, Azarenka showed off her renewed determination as she reeled off three straight points to secure another break and hold on to get within four points of victory.
With the match on her racquet, Azarenka earned a pair of match points and converted her first with a deep forehand hit on the run, securing victory in little over an hour.
"Expectations are just for people to talk about. I expect myself to be happy on court and do the best I can. As long as I put my happy face and genuine smile on the court, I think I'll be ok."
In all, Azarenka struck a solid 11 winners to nine unforced errors, maintaining a perfect five for five on break point conversions while winning 77% of points behind her first serve.
Sabalenka will ultimately rue her unforced errors, tallying 27 by match's end to 15 winners while converting just one of five break point opportunities.
Up next for Azarenka, who is still alive in doubles with reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, is either Polish teenager Iga Swiatek or Sachia Vickery, whose match was suspended with Vickery leading by a set after winning the last seven points of the tie-break.
"I'm feeling fit, so I'm good! I have an amazing fitness coach, so I'm lucky."