Victoria Azarenka began 2022 ranked 27th in the world, and she finished the year in the same position. She had periods of her greatest play, played a few solid matches, and advanced to the fourth round of two Grand Slams, but her year-long record of 24-13 revealed that she was struggling at critical times.
In essence, she was swimming well and had terrific stroke form, but she lacked the courage to go in headfirst and take chances. She was aware that being shy won't help you win games against the greatest. She thus used her off-season to push herself and engage in unpleasant activities.
On Tuesday, it all appeared to click against Jessica Pegula, the third seed. The two-time Australian Open winner displayed youthful exuberance as she easily defeated her opponent 6-4, 6-1 in 1 hour and 37 minutes.
When asked about what has changed since the 2022 season finished, Azarenka stated in her on-court interview, "My tennis wasn't horrible, but I wasn't really psychologically there. "I played with a lot of nervousness and terror. Being bold and making the proper decisions in crucial situations on the court when you are unsure and uneasy was incredibly challenging.
So she made the decision to make a change.
Azarenka said, "I worked really hard on my thinking, pushed myself on things I wouldn't do previously. "When you have enormous success, you may sometimes get cautious and reluctant to explore new things. I thought, "You know what, I'll maintain an open mind, try new things, and work hard."
All of that effort paid off against Pegula, who often plays with a very straightforward strategy, and enabled Azarenka advance to her first Australian Open semi-final since 2013. Additionally, it was her first victory against a member of the Top-5 at a Major since defeating Maria Sharapova in the 2012 US Open semifinals.
Both the fresh perspective and Azarenka's aggressive game plan execution were beneficial. In the women's draw, Pegula was still the player with the best ranking, but from the get-go, the Belarusian was in charge of setting the pace. She accomplished this by swaying the American and preventing her from developing any rhythm during the groundstrokes.
Half the war is frequently won by not allowing the opponent to play the game they want to. And Azarenka followed it up with some astute moves of her own; although she made far less unforced mistakes (17 to 19) than Pegula, she had fewer clean wins (17 to 19). (20 to 31).
Pegula expressed her apparent feeling of being cornered in the same way: "Hitting the ball deep, taking it early, altering the path of the ball, doing things I generally like to do to people. She was succeeding well.
"I found it difficult to believe I could actually push her. I had the impression that she had been applying steady pressure to me.
Contrary to what the scoreline may imply, there was some two-way flow. After just 12 minutes, Azarenka went out to a 3-0 lead, but Pegula fought back. The world number 24 had a history of losing control when she seems to be in charge, but on Tuesday, she managed to hold off the American.
In the post-match presser, Azarenka said, "I knew I had to play quickly. "There is no one better at hip level than Jess; she simply doesn't miss, so I didn't want to give her the chance to jump in and mix things up.
"I created a few intriguing slices. You're doing the right thing, I said. It's okay even if it looks terrible.
Azarenka, 33, will take against Elena Rybakina, a 23-year-old Kazakh of Russian descent who defeated Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia earlier in the day. Rybakina is the only other Grand Slam winner still in the draw.
It won't be simple, but the last 10 years weren't either. It is a tale of tenacity, but at its core, Azarenka's resolve is what shines out. She didn't simply get by; instead, she found a way to succeed once again. And few things are more enjoyable than a well-executed redemption arc.