London - Victoria Azarenka cannot wait to renew her rivalry
with close friend Serena Williams in what could shape up to become a future
battle of the tennis mums.
For a change, Azarenka, who has four wins and 17 defeats
against Williams, is a step ahead of the American having given birth to son Leo
in December - a day, she says, represented a "180 degree" turn in
While the former world No 1 and twice Australian Open
champion resumes her career this week in Mallorca, Williams's baby is due in
September with the American to return next year.
"I've been friends off the court with Serena for a long
time and I'm very happy for her," Azarenka told Reuters as she prepared
for her comeback on the Mallorcan grass-courts.
"First of all I was so happy when she said she was
pregnant but when I first heard I thought, 'Oh my God, I'll never have the
chance to play against her again.' I was a little sad.
"But it's incredible that she's coming back and I know
that hopefully we'll face each other more times."
Azarenka, 27, has always been one of the most ferocious
competitors on the women's circuit.
Tennis has been all-consuming - a diet of practise,
tournaments, gym sessions and the all-too-regular rehabilitations from injury.
Since becoming a mum, however, there is a new Azarenka.
"Having Leo has changed my life 180 degrees," the
Belarusian explained. "I love every moment of being a mum. But now I have
two different mentalities.
"When I'm on the court, the only reason I'm there is
that I love the game and I still have so much potential to improve. When I'm
there I give 100 percent every time.
"But after that I'm in a different mode. I switch off.
That has always been so hard in the past.
"I used to come back and watch tennis or talk about
tennis, or check tennis on the internet. Now with Leo, it's easy to forget it.
"Whenever I come back from practise I just want to
spend time with Leo, read books, swim in the pool, regular stuff. He is a good
napper too. When I'm practise he usually naps."
Azarenka, who is back on a protected ranking, believes the
enforced 12-month break can help her become an even better player than before
and maybe emulate Kim Clijsters, who returned after starting a family to win
three of her four major titles.
"I'm managing my time better now," she said.
"I get better quality time now. When it comes to practise I used to get
there and talk and laugh, and waste some time.
"Now I'm just there for one reason. I'm there, then I'm
gone. I have a limited time and I need to make the best of it. You have a short
time to have your priorities straight, to give it all for the sport you love,
but it doesn't end here.
"Tennis is not forever.
"So for me to be able to continue my career with having
already had a child, it's more meaningful. You can still chase your dream but I
have a much bigger life purpose now.
"Hopefully what Kim did and what hopefully Serena and I
can do can inspire more women to do the same. It's a stereotype that only male
players can succeed after having kids."
Azarenka is used to making comebacks.
A foot injury kept her off court for five months in 2014 and
she has suffered niggling injuries since. Her last tournament, the 2016 French
Open, was curtailed by a knee injury.
So this break from the game has been a happier one as it
also allowed her to spend time with partner Billy McKeague, rediscover her
roots in Minsk and support her mother, Ala, who has successfully fought cancer.
"Emotionally it's completely different," she said.
"Absence because of injuries is a disappointment. But this was for a very
happy reason and I think it can help me.
"It was nice to experience the vibes in Minsk again.
And it's given me time to work hard on my body, make sure I'm strong and can
come back injury free," she said.
"I never really had that time before. I didn't really
expect to play this early. I don't know how I'm going to do. But I'm ready to
play and grind again and play a lot of matches.
"Just need time to get the rhythm back. I don't know
how long that will take but I will get there. Definitely. It's going to be