LONDON, Great Britian - Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka is back at Wimbledon for the first time in two years after the birth of her son Leo, and shared her thoughts and her new perspective on life, her sport and the oldest event in tennis in a pre-tournament press conference on Saturday.
In Azarenka's last appearance at the All-England Club, she reached the quarterfinals, where she lost to eventual champion Serena Williams. The two-time Australian Open champion is also a two-time semifinalist at Wimbledon, in 2011 and 2012.
The Belarusian played her first competitive matches in over a year last week at the Mallorca Open and sat down with Grand Slam media as a competitor for the first time since the French Open a year ago in London ahead of the start of the Championships.
"I wasn't really sure if I was ready mentally, because I planned everything, tickets and stuff, how we going to travel, all the arrangements, starting in Stanford," Azarenka said of her decision to return to the tour early. "I thought about it for about a week, I think maybe even two. I felt like I was ready to compete. I was tired of practicing, just keep going through drills. I needed competition.
"It feels great [to be back]. I didn't play last year, so it feels like it's been, you know, almost two years that I didn't play here. I always love coming here - [Wimbledon is] such a special event for any tennis player, any tennis fan. Being back here with an extra member of my team is really special."
The extra member of Azarenka's team is, of course, son Leo - born in December - and the new mom said he's already taken quite well to the grind of international travel and life on the professional tennis tour.
"He's actually a very good traveler. I think I stress out more because I want to make sure that everything is going great. I think I'm stressing out more than anything else around me. He is totally fine. He loves the plane," Azarenka admitted. "When I go out to practice, of course I practice there. I'm present. After that, it's all about somebody else. It's not about me any more, which in tennis is a little bit tricky.
"...I have to do to feel okay with taking some time for myself, not feel guilty that I don't spend my every free second with my son, which is sometimes tough. It also gives me I feel like a really good balance when I am done with my practice or my matches, that I'm able to shut off from tennis [and] just lose myself with my son."
Azarenka will face World No.40 CiCi Bellis in her first round match - the American teenager reached the semifinals at the Mallorca Open in her first WTA-level tournament on grass. The winner of the match could face No.14 seed, and 2016 semifinalist, Elena Vesnina in the second round.
"She's definitely not an easy opponent, especially in the first round. I'm here unseeded with really no ranking. I didn't really know who I'm going to play. I expect every round to be tough," Azarenka said of Bellis. "I actually practiced with her couple of times already. I practiced with her here and in Mallorca. She's definitely a good player. At this age you have nothing to lose, just go out there with no pressure, and playing. I'm happy to play against anybody.
"It's all the same tournament-wise. Still the same locker rooms. It's still the same matches, same scheduling. So I don't feel that much of a difference. I definitely notice a lot of new names and a lot of new faces that I still don't really know. I'm going to, for sure, find out in the recent months or so. It felt to me like I was gone for longer than a year because of the unfamiliar faces and players that I've seen."
After saving three match points to defeat Japan's Risa Ozaki in the first round at the Mallorca Open, Azarenka was bundled out of the tournament by an in-form Ana Konjuh, who is the No.27 seed at the Championships.
Outside of her time on the match court in her return to tennis, Azarenka also opened up on Saturday about her burgeoning relationship with new coach, Michael Joyce.
"I knew Michael from before when he worked, but I didn't really know him personally. [It] was always like, you see him across on the other side. That was it. I didn't know him as a person. I didn't really know him as a player," Azarenka said. "Once we met and started talking about tennis, what does he think I can improve, I really liked his philosophy. I told him that I don't want to come back and play just to have fun. I want to come back and make sure I get to the top level. We share the same determination, the same goals in that aspect.
"He's teaching me couple of things that I didn't maybe pay attention so much before, especially tactic-wise. I need to keep applying that."
She added: "In tennis, and in tournaments, you can feel great on the practice court, but to be able to transfer that into the match I think is a real art. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it clicks right away. I think I'm on the right path to bringing all those components together and try to play better than I ever was before."
While she goes into Grand Slam tennis with just two completed matches under her belt this year, the 27-year-old remains as determined as every to make the most of the second phase of her career.
"I want to think that I'm only getting better as a player. From the outside, you know, people only judge your game and everything by your results. I will need time for that," she said. "I think I got smarter as a player over the years, I think I'm a better player today than before. I think it's more demanding now because I expect myself to be present every single moment I'm on the court. Otherwise, you know, I have another job to do. If I don't give hundred percent on the court, there's no point to do it.
"My expectations for myself are always really high in terms of my effort, in terms of my preparation. Everything I can do in my power to be at my best that particular day. As long as I do hundred percent, give my best effort, I'm good with that...[I want to win] both, you know, for him and for me as well."