Like Serena, Victoria Azarenka makes a happy return to the tour

EPA/PAUL BUCK

Playing for the first time since last July, Victoria Azarenka saved 10 of 12 break points to win her first-round match at Indian Wells.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- After winning her first-round match against Heather Watson at the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday, Victoria Azarenka looked up to the sky, clinched her fists and appeared to be holding back tears.

"It truly means the world to me just to be here, and to play, and enjoy myself and do what I love to do," she said through a smile during her on-court interview. "There were some moments I lost my concentration [because of] not playing so long, but it's a pretty good start. I had my heart out playing here and that's the most important."

This was Azarenka's first match since losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon last July. She wasn't allowed to leave California with her son because of an ongoing custody battle. As a result, expectations were tempered for the 28-year-old.

Although she is the 2012 and 2016 Indian Wells champion and a two-time Grand Slam champion, we understandably had questions of what to expect.

But Azarenka showed little signs of rust, jumping out to a 5-1 lead in the first set. She then struggled briefly, allowing Watson to win the next three games, but ultimately her signature intensity seemed to return just in time to save the set.

With the exception of one 18-minute game, there would be little opportunity for Watson to come back in the second set. Azarenka willed out the win, 6-4, 6-2.

Azarenka had a tough act to follow. She was playing in the second match of the night session following an emotional return from Serena Williams, who was playing her first WTA match since becoming a mother. Much of the crowd remained for the start of Azarenka's match. They were largely supportive of the Belarus native from the start, with frequent "Let's go Vika!" cheers and even a "Vika, Vika" song during a changeover.

And while Azarenka announced after the win that she was planning on playing in Miami later this month, her long-term future on the tour is still in doubt. Azarenka did not address if there was a temporary custody resolution or whether Leo would be staying in California while she travels. But she did reveal she's optimistic about the legal case finally coming to an end soon.

"Unfortunately, this situation is a little bit out of my control, so I have to go with the flow and continue to be positive, continue to be optimistic and continue to just fight, because that's what I'm best at -- fighting," she said. "One day, I'll write a book about this because it's Hollywood-worthy for sure, but right now, I just want to keep it private because it's something that needs to be private."

Before her pregnancy, Azarenka was considered one of the most dangerous players on tour, and one of the few who could challenge Serena, whom she beat for the 2016 Indian Wells title. Azarenka was sidelined soon after because of her pregnancy and has been largely away from the game since. Her life has been so in flux recently, she wasn't even sure she would be able to play at Indian Wells until last week.

She said multiple times throughout the evening just how happy she was to be on the court. And it showed. When she walked off after the win, she took time to thank fans and sign autographs. She appeared to be in no rush to leave and basked in the adoration.

Azarenka will be going for a $1 million incentive by winning the singles and doubles title at this event. She is teaming up with fellow countrywoman Aryna Sabalenka, and the two will face Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard on Friday in their opening-round match.

Having recently reunited with her childhood coach Slava Konikov, Azarenka seems happier than ever to be playing the game she loves when she's able, and is just trying to keep things in perspective and take everything in stride.

"For myself, I think the hardest thing to do was to lower my expectation today to just go out there and try and enjoy the moment, and for once, be nice to yourself on the court and don't beat yourself up too much if you're not doing what you think you can do," she said. "That was definitely a battle in my head to make that work.

"There were days unfortunately that I couldn't even get out of bed. But I did my best and I can try and be consistent. It's not easy but I need to start somewhere, and being here is a good start for me."

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