It seems only fitting they would be here now, at this new phase in life, testing their bodies and an unfamiliar threshold for emotional toughness.
In 2014, Serena won her second straight US Open and 17th Grand Slam title in the longest women’s championship in 34 years, and she did it against Azarenka. Back then, it seemed Azarenka was the only player who did not wilt in Williams’ presence and the highly competitive three-set final was just what women’s tennis needed at the time.
Though they were certainly missed, the game has proven it can survive without the 23-time-Grand-Slam-winning Williams at No. 1 and Azarenka on her heels. When the two return to the tour Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, it will be Serena’s first match since winning the 2017 Australian Open while six weeks pregnant, and Azarenka’s first since losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon, with little Leo then six months old. A custody battle with her son’s father sent Azarenka back off the tour for eight months.
But now both Vika and Serena are back, both toting their babies, and their fans and competitors are watching closely to see how it goes for the new moms.
“I’m curious because it’s something really special to have a kid and then to come back to play,” said World No. 1 Simona Halep. “It’s not on my mind to do that, but I just want to see the girls being so strong to come back and to play tennis again.”
Azarenka plays 70th-ranked Heather Watson in the first round with a possible second-round meeting with 19th-ranked Daria Kasatkina and a third-round match with 13th-ranked Sloane Stephens — three opponents against whom she is a combined 9-0.
At Wimbledon, Azarenka said her mentality took a “180” after Leo was born.
“When I go out to practice, of course, I practice. I’m present. But after that, it’s all about somebody else. It’s not about me any more, which in tennis is a little bit tricky,” she said.
Welcoming Serena back to the tour are four billboards her husband Alexis Ohanian installed along I-10 into Palm Springs, with giant images of baby Alexis Olympia. But asked how her new niece has changed her sister, Venus Williams said she has not seen a dramatic change overall with Serena.
“She does everything for the baby — every single thing,” Venus said Wednesday. “I hope I can do that if I ever get there. Other than that, I think she has stayed very much the same.”
Williams, 36, and Azarenka, 28, will not be the first women in their sport to return to the tour after having babies. But only three moms in the Open Era, have won Grand Slam titles.
The most recent was Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, who won two US Opens and one Australian Open title as a mother at ages 26 and 27, regaining her No. 1 ranking in the process. Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon after her first child at 28, and Margaret Court won three different Slam titles at ages 30 and 31.
An endearing photo has Clijsters in Arthur Ashe Stadium holding daughter Jada in one arm and the US Open trophy in the other.
“I’ve always loved watching Kim Clijsters, how she came back after her first baby and then won a Grand Slam,” said the No. 24 seed at Indian Wells, Elena Vesnina. “These are the kinds of things that inspire you, even if you don’t have a baby yet.”
Currently, there are three mothers playing on the WTA tour — Vera Zvonareva, Kateryna Bondarenko and Tatjana Maria. Zvonareva, who had daughter Evelyn in 2016, qualified for the main draw.
“It’s not easy but it is possible to be back,” Zvonareva said. “Nowadays, technology helps because if you don’t bring your baby with you, you can still video with them and stay in touch. This way it makes it a bit easier. Physically and mentally, it’s not easy but it’s possible.”
“If you really want to be back, if you really love tennis and you want to compete again, yeah, you can do it. You just have to work hard like you had to work hard before to get where you were. With hard work, you can make it happen.”
The only thing for certain with Serena is that she has always found satisfaction in proving doubters wrong. Asked what she expected from Serena in Indian Wells, No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova said bluntly, “Not much.”
“It’s tough to get back, even for such a champion like she is,” she said. “I think it’s just different. I don’t have that experience with having a baby, but I think it changes the body and the mindset and everything quite a lot. We will see. The first tournament is always tough. For sure, she’s going to be a little bit nervous. I don’t know what shape she’s in. The hands are still pretty quick and she can play good tennis, but I don’t know if maybe it will take a while until she’s back to where she was.”
No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza said every player “will look for sure to see how [Serena’s] playing,” but welcomes back both moms.
“I think it’s good that they’re back,” she said. “They’re great competitors. I played against both of them, tough matches, so they’re going to make the draw more interesting.”