MELBOURNE, Australia — Dinner had arrived in the player restaurant for Jessica Pegula’s coach, David Witt, but it did not come with a Spot in the Australian Open Semifinals.

Pegula, who was the highest-seeded player left in the women’s singles tournament at No. 3 had been defeated convincingly by her friend, 6-4 and 6-1 on Tuesday Victoria Azarenka Rod Laver Arena

“Vika played pretty well,” Someone once said: Azarenka’s nickname.

“No,” Witt replied quickly. “Vika played beyond well. We weren’t expecting that at all. That was her best match in a long time.”

Melbourne Park’s Hardcourts have had hardcourts for years. Azarenka’s happiest hunting grounds. An ex-world No. 1 She was a former world No. 2020 a The resurgent Azarenka Williams beat in a U.S. Open Semifinals and Naomi Osaka was quite pleased a Before losing the final, they fought in a duel.

Many of these are not. Azarenka’s former rivals, including Williams, are retired, she has played on, juggling motherhood with the demands of an international tennis tour and attempting to focus on the challenges at hand instead of what might have been.

With She is known for her athleticism, ball-striking skills, and instinctive combativeness. Azarenka, 33, a 6-foot Belarusian, had looked set for a long run near the very top of the women’s game. She was hit hard by injuries, depression and a long custody battle with Billy McKeague (the father of Leo), which led to her being forced back. Now, the boy is 6 years old and lives with his mother. Azarenka Boca Raton is home to many relatives.

“Obviously, he is watching some matches, but he definitely wants his mom to be home,” Azarenka She said this in an on-court interview that she gave Tuesday.

After struggling through some of her early matches in Melbourne — losing the opening set to Madison Keys in the third round by 6-1 — Azarenka Click to enter a Pegula the rising American had not lost his footing, so he was in a higher gear a This tournament was played before the quarterfinal matches.

“I’m very excited,” Azarenka said. “I feel like I definitely appreciate being on the court more now.”

Another difficult assignment awaits her in a Semifinal match against Elena Rybakina on Thursday, reigning Wimbledon champion. Rybakina’s powerful and precise serve could provide quite a challenge for Azarenka, long one of the game’s premier returners.

But Azarenka She often seemed more interested in the process of the tournament than she did the destination. She stated that she tried to learn to be more focused on the task at hand. “little steps” Instead of her traditional goals, she prefers to work towards results.

“I need to have patience,” Sie said. “When you win big, it’s hard to be patient, so you want to get the things going.”

Pegula, Witt and Witt were expecting her to feel the same on Tuesday. Azarenka’s form to dip, she maintained a High level, after a difficult start. Full of groundstrokes and attack flourishes that gave her the edge she needed, a 3-0 first-set lead.

“I feel like sometimes when I play her, she can go off a little bit because of how she plays, but tonight it doesn’t really feel like she went off at all,” Pegula said. “That just made it super tough. At the same time, I feel like I gave her a lot of unforced errors, a lot of mistakes.”

Uncomfortable in the slower conditions with Laver Arena’s roof closed because of rain, Pegula had to scrap for nearly every game she won, navigating six deuces before holding serve in the fourth game. She didn’t break, however. Azarenka at 5-3, Pegula dumped a She missed a short chance to score at 15-0, which ended her momentum. Azarenka broke back to take control of the match and win the set.

Pegula, 28, a A late bloomer, she overcame serious hip and knee injuries during her career.

“Obviously I’m upset about tonight, but at the same time, I’m putting myself in these positions to go deep in these tournaments,” Sie said. “I think I’ve proven that. I’ve been super consistent.”

Elle continued: “Hopefully it comes together. I definitely want to do better. I want to do more.”

Azarenka I can relate. In her first years of touring, she had to overcome her perfectionist tendencies that left her sometimes frustrated and even in tears at matches. She is still tough and says that she was able to smash rackets even after. a Ekaterina Alexandrova was defeated in the first round of Ostrava (Czech Republic) last October. a Recently low point

“I felt like especially last year my tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really mentally there,” Sie said. “I played with a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, and it really was difficult to be brave and make the right choices in the important moments.”

When she was asked about her fears, she replied: “Fears of failing is a big one. To not be able to do what I want to do. So subconsciously sometimes it stops you from doing it. I think the point of being uncomfortable is scary. I’ve had panic attacks before.”

However, she stated that she has worked. a She has a lot to offer.

“Because when you achieve great success, sometimes you become conservative, and you become more hesitant to try new things,” Sie said. “This off-season, I was like: ‘You know what? I will just be open-minded and try new things and put my head down and work hard.’”

The 2022 season was full of unexpected challenges, such as being among the players from Belarus and Russia who were barred from playing at Wimbledon because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Azarenka, one of Belarus’s most prominent athletes, has called for peace and said she was “devastated” By the war. Pegula and she were also members of the WTA Player Council that supported the decision not to award Wimbledon the ranking points normally awarded at the tournament as a retaliation.

When Ukrainian football players protested Azarenka was included in the lineup for an exhibition ahead of last year’s U.S. Open to raise funds for relief efforts in Ukraine. Azarenka The event was not attended by them.

“It’s a very complicated and very delicate situation to manage,” Maxime Tchoutakian was her coach. “She had a hard time, but it was a period that was difficult for many players, and they have to try to manage it the best they can.”

Azarenka According to her, she provided financial and clothing support as well as donated clothing for the Ukrainian youth players. Wimbledon is still at war and it’s not clear if the Russians will be allowed to return this year. But AzarenkaPegula was 24th seeded in Melbourne. On Tuesday she looked very fit and focussed.

“I knew I have to play fast, and I have to not give her the opportunity to step in, and I have to mix it up,” Azarenka said. “Because at hip level, there’s nobody better than Jess. She just doesn’t miss.”

Azarenka sliced. You can also see her throwing in looping forehands. a player who had been among the leaders in Melbourne in breaking opponents’ serves.

Now, it’s working for the first-ever time. a decade, Azarenka Is back in a Semifinale at the Australian Open. This tournament was won twice by her.

Leo explains how her life has changed tremendously since 2013. He was at her Melbourne rostrum last year and was present. a After one of her matches, news conference. He has school obligations this year so he did not travel.

“A few more days here, and I’ll be back,” Azarenka She said this to her son after she extended her stay at her play.

“Honestly,” Witt said, “I don’t think she could have played better.”