2018 marked an emotional and difficult return to tennis for Victoria Azarenka, by the player's own admission. The Belarusian former World No 1 is set to play in her first Australian Open since 2016 when she lost in the quarter-finals to Angelique Kerber. The German ace would go on to defeat Serena Williams for the title. Azarenka had a less than stellar showing at Grand Slams in 2016, retiring in the first round at the French Open and withdrawing from Wimbledon with a recurrent knee injury. Azarenka would get pregnant ahead of the US Open, beginning her maternity leave at that time.
In the year since, what followed for Azarenka was not the glorious return to tennis that the player had imagined. Instead, a long-drawn-out custody battle against the father of her son forced Azarenka to miss the majority of the early 2018 season in the melee of the court dates that followed. She was also unable to travel out of California, leading to her missing many tournaments on the WTA Tour. Caught in the middle of legal issues and custody battles, Azarenka nevertheless marked a triumphant return to tennis at Indian Wells in March 2018 with a win against former British No 1 Heather Watson. Hard courts have long been Azarenka's strongest surface, and the Belarusian had won the title at Indian Wells twice before; but by her own admission, this particular win had been different.
Another hard-court legend — perhaps an every-court legend, Serena Williams, also marks her first Australian Open since 2017. The American ace beat sister Venus in the final to win her 23rd Grand Slam title and later revealed that she was two months pregnant at the time — a fact only her sister Venus had been aware of. Since then, the younger Williams has more than convincingly come back at the Grand Slam level and proved beyond a doubt that she is perhaps at the peak of her fitness levels since pregnancy.
What has been unmistakable, however, is that both stories mark a significant victory for women in the sport. Despite her struggles in 2018, Azarenka did have some significant Grand Slam success, making the finals of the mixed doubles at Wimbledon with partner Jamie Murray where the pair lost the title to Alexander Peya and Nicole Melichar. This year, Azarenka opened her season with the Auckland Classic, going up in round one against her rival Venus Williams. Venus would go on to beat Azarenka 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in a hard-fought win.
Last year, Serena also marked her post-pregnancy comeback, stamping it definitively with a strong finals finish at the US Open. Since then, the 23-time Grand Slam winner has appeared to go from strength to strength in the months following the US Open in terms of fitness and stamina and the American will begin her season directly with the Australian Open this year, absenting herself from any of the lead-in tournaments. Following the birth of her daughter Alexis, Williams' ranking had dropped to 453 and she remained unseeded at the 2018 French Open, where she reached the fourth round before withdrawing with an injury to her pectoral muscle.
In December 2018, after calls from several players — Williams and Azarenka among them, supported by former No 1 Maria Sharapova — the WTA announced that "its board of directors approved changes that will allow players out of competition for 52 weeks or longer to use their Special Ranking in 12 tournaments. A player returning from pregnancy would have a three-year period to use her Special Ranking, which will now begin at the birth of the child."
Years before any rule changes were even brought to the table, let alone implemented to the degree they have been today, former World No 1 Kim Clijsters returned to tennis after the birth of her child in 2008. She admitted at the time to have struggled with the physical aspect of her return, describing how body changes had affected her on-court movement, gameplay and more. That was even more serious issue for Williams who nearly died in childbirth after suffering a hematoma during her delivery. Childbirth is life and body-altering experience, and one as traumatic as Williams' requires even more physical recovery and rehabilitation that might otherwise have been needed.
There have been mothers who returned to tennis following pregnancy. Most notable has been Clijsters, who won three Grand Slams after becoming a mother. The Belgian ace did not have access to protected rankings, which until recently were only available to high-ranking players recovering from serious injury.
Clijsters, Azarenka, and Williams have had triumphant returns to the sport — both physically and mentally. But for women's tennis, the return of Williams and Azarenka to fitness, and for the rule changes the pair were instrumental in initiating, their returns mean so much more.
No longer is motherhood the proverbial death sentence for a female tennis player's career — meaning now tennis players are not forced to make an "either-or" choice — whether that might be of timing, or the decision to have children entirely. That also prolongs the careers of many women who may have been pushed into early retirements in light of having to make the choice of having a child.
It has often been said tennis is as much a mental game as it is physical — and indeed, the security of knowing there is a safety net after a return from pregnancy will no doubt bolster the confidence of numerous players who may be looking to pursue their own careers. With women still expected to be primary caregivers at the cost of their careers in so many areas, professional tennis has set the beginnings of an example crucial to changing just how careers, motherhood and women's sport are perceived entirely.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 16:33:18 IST