NEW YORK, NY, USA - Victoria Azarenka will depart New York City as the US Open runner-up for the third time in her career, but the former World No.1 is keeping perspective at the end of an emphatic return to form that saw her reach her first major final in seven years.
Taking on No.4 seed and 2018 champion Naomi Osaka, Azarenka battled her way to a set and a break lead on Arthur Ashe Stadium, seeking to win her third Grand Slam crown. But Osaka engineered a comeback from the brink to seal the victory, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the championship match after nearly two hours.
“It's definitely been a great three weeks of tennis. I haven't had such results in quite a long time, so I'm very excited for it,” Azarenka reflected, speaking via video chat in her post-match press conference. “Today, it's a loss. It doesn't change for me much. Of course, I would have loved to win today. It is what it is.”
“I gave everything that I could today on the court,” she added. “It didn't come my way. But I'm very proud of the last three weeks that I've been here. I felt that I progressed a lot. I've played a lot of great matches. I felt that I've tested myself physically, mentally on very difficult stages.
“It was a lot of fun for me to play, to be in the final of the US Open. I'm very grateful for this opportunity.”
Few tennis fans would have predicted that Azarenka would reach back-to-back finals in New York City, and Azarenka herself admitted that she had pondered putting down the tennis racquets for good after struggling to put together positive results. Injury struggles and personal issues had impacted her schedule in the past, keeping her out of this year’s Australian Open. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the 31-year-old had played only one match - a first-round, straight-sets defeat in Monterrey to Tamara Zidansek.
“I was ready to stop, definitely,” Azarenka admitted. “I haven't touched my racquet for five months. I was really not planning on coming to play until I had my personal issues resolved. So I never really made the final decision because I was going to do that after.
“So it was pretty close. But what kept me in the game is my desire to go after what I want. That's pretty much it.”
Azarenka traveled to Lexington for her first tournament after the tour’s five-month hiatus, and she was quickly dismantled by Venus Williams in her first match. As she touched down in the NYC bubble, it had been a year since the former World No.1 had won a match.
But when Azarenka finally hit her stride, there was no one to stop her at the Cincy tournament, dropping just one set all week long as she claimed victories over in-form players including Donna Vekic, Johanna Konta and Ons Jabeur.
After weeks and months of frustration at not seeing her in-practice form translate into match results, Azarenka credits her turnaround with a big mental shift in perspective and mentality. Azarenka, who was 24 years old when she won the second of her back-to-back Australian Open titles, reflected on how much more joy she had found on court this fortnight - despite the challenging and unique conditions.
“I feel that I enjoyed more the way I am on the court,” Azarenka reflected. “Not necessarily focused on the result, but focusing on your progress, being in the moment, embracing the tough moments, tough challenges.
“When the things don't go your way, it's more fun to kind of figure it out rather than being in, like, Oh, sh*t, I'm in trouble, what am I going to do?
“That for me is more fun because I'm looking for, you know, more solutions oriented rather than What am I doing wrong? My mentality has been something a lot more fun for me to be around. I felt that I've enjoyed myself throughout the tournament way more.”
Azarenka’s new patient problem-solving was on full display again at the US Open, where she had to go through two Top 5 seeds as she defeated No.5 Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets in the second round and overcame No.3 Serena Williams to reach her first Grand Slam final since 2013.
She was up a set and a break against Osaka, but as her opponent came all the way back to claim her second US Open crown, Azarenka found herself coming up short in Flushing Meadows for the third time in her career.
“I'm not necessarily disappointed. It's just painful,” Azarenka admitted. “It's painful to lose. That is what it is. It was close. I was close. But it didn't go my way.
“I left everything I could on the court today. She won the match. All the credit to Naomi. She's a champion.
“I thought third time is a charm, but I got to try again. That's what I'm going to do.”
Azarenka will get to try again sooner than usual: while the US Open would usually mark the final Grand Slam of the year, as a result of tournament cancelations and rescheduling due to the COVID-19 pandemic an abbreviated European clay season is set to follow, with main draw play in Rome kicking off on Monday.
Azarenka will get another rematch as she takes on Venus Williams in the first round, with a chance to avenge her 6-3, 6-2 defeat in Lexington. But Azarenka revealed that despite her emphatic return to form, she is making sure to keep her own expectations in check.
“I've been down this road now a few times. I hopefully learned my lesson how to navigate the situation,” Azarenka said. “So my expectation is always very high on terms of what I do, the effort that I put in. I don't think that will change at all.
“But in terms of results, if I'm going to start focusing on that, I think it will be counterproductive for my progress. So I would just want to continue to, you know, learn.
“I don't want to ever be satisfied that I know how to do things or I know how to behave or tactical-wise, any of that. I want to continue to be a student. I'm going to strive for that.”