“I feel better than I’ve ever been before, just the way I approach the match,” Victoria Azarenka said Saturday on ESPN after collecting her first WTA title since 2016 when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the final of the Western & Southern Open with a hamstring injury. “The way I feel on court, I enjoy the process, I enjoy the fight. I would say I’ve never felt that before.”
This year’s U.S. Open welcomes back to the fold three former world No. 1s: Azarenka, Andy Murray and Kim Clijsters. They may not be favorites to win the year’s second Grand Slam, but it should be compelling to watch them try after so long away.
Azarenka, 31, put together a striking run through legitimate contenders to claim her 21st title after contemplating retirement earlier this year. Murray, 33, arrives at his first Grand Slam since the 2019 Australian Open having pushed the limits of his right hip, twice surgically repaired, this week and come away with his first victory over a top-10 player since 2017. Clijsters, a 37-year-old Hall of Famer, lands fresh in New York during her second comeback after playing her first match in nearly eight years in February.
“It’s always a pleasure for me to come to the U.S. Open, whether it is for legends or for commentary or whatever,” Clijsters said Saturday, mentioning her more recent roles on a tennis court. “So to be here as a player is even more special.”
Each of the three former Grand Slam champions arrived at tennis’s New York bubble carrying something new in their lives as professionals.
For 134th-ranked Murray, who opens play Tuesday against left-hander Yoshihito Nishioka, it is feeling the pure joy of tennis again. The Brit played his first tour matches of 2020 this week at the Western & Southern Open, dictating play in a three-set victory over Frances Tiafoe, then outlasting No. 7 Alexander Zverev in another three-setter before falling to the tournament’s runner-up, Milos Raonic. He worked his hip to the extreme with three matches in as many days but covered the court as well as he used to, even if it took him a hair longer to chug from one corner to the other.
Murray, whose most recent surgery was in January 2019, said he felt like himself again for the first time since the 2017 French Open.
“It’s a long time ago. I know I’ve played a couple of Slams since then, but that wasn’t really me on the court,” Murray said. “Whereas now, yeah, I’m not as quick probably as I was before, but I’m able to go out there and compete and focus on the tennis, hopefully be able to last a five-set match without my performance seriously deteriorating as it goes on.”
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, may be the most intriguing of the three if only because she — theoretically, after her showing this week — stands the best chance of getting close to the brash, hard-hitting form that made her No. 1 in the world in 2012.
The Belarusian shares a compelling section of the draw with Clijsters, Venus Williams and No. 2 Sofia Kenin, the year’s only Grand Slam champion after she took the title in Melbourne in February. Though she gained her Western & Southern Open title by virtue of a walkover, Azarenka proved as formidable as ever on her favorite surface, on which she has claimed all but one of her career titles.
Azarenka, ranked 59th, last reached the final of the U.S. Open in 2013; she will begin this year’s effort Tuesday against Barbara Haas. Like Murray, she spoke of a new appreciation for the sport after a spotty and emotionally draining four years: She has found new happiness on the court and resolve for life as a pro, down to the smallest aspects of her routine, such as making her bed daily for the first time in her life — in part to serve as an example for her 3-year-old son, Leo.
“My first win here after a year of not winning any matches, so I’m pretty happy about that,” Azarenka said on ESPN.
Azarenka’s timing and anticipation returned this week with seeming ease, something Clijsters, a three-time U.S. Open champion, chased this summer while competing in World Team Tennis to get matches under her belt.
The Belgian won two of her four Grand Slams after becoming a mother; she knows career comebacks take patience in addition to dedication. She will be on the court again for her first Grand Slam match since 2012 on Tuesday against No. 21 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, and she’s keeping expectations low. Clijsters has stayed around tennis since retiring for the second time, opening an academy and occasionally doing commentary. Her enjoyment of the game is nothing new, nor is her desire to test herself — for Clijsters, it’s everyone else who has changed in her absence.
“I mean, for me, what is new is there’s a lot of girls’ names out there who I’ve never heard of,” she said. “I have to kind of get used to that a little bit again.”
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