With Baby in Tow, Victoria Azarenka Returns to Tennis — and Her Roots


“I was crying, and I didn’t know how to tell her,” Azarenka said. “And I was panicking because I knew of all my mom was going through, and she said, ‘That’s great news!’”

Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon that summer, citing the knee injury, and on July 15 she announced her pregnancy and break from the game. Leo was born in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.

Azarenka’s new house with an ocean view in Manhattan Beach remains her primary base with her boyfriend, Billy McKeague, but she has chosen to do most of the preparation for her return in Minsk, where she has extensive family support. She plans to remain here until early July.

She schedules her training around breast-feeding, and McKeague is an involved father.

“You don’t know how someone is going to react at a young age being a dad, but he loves Leo so much and is very affectionate,” Azarenka said. “He understands what I want to do right now, and he’s also willing to sacrifice his time away from his family as well for the next five, six years for me to be done with this chapter of my life of playing.”

McKeague, 27, and Azarenka met in Kauai, Hawaii, where she was visiting friends, the big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and his wife, Gabrielle Reece. McKeague was working as a golf pro at upscale resorts on the North Shore.

He has an upbeat, easygoing personality, which can contrast with Azarenka’s intensity. But sometimes they compete, as they did during Azarenka’s morning fitness session at the luxurious Falcon Club, a new sports and entertainment complex.

The club, on the banks of the Svislach River, is a short drive from the crowded gymnasium of Azarenka’s youth but light-years removed in terms of creature comforts. On a recent Monday morning, she and her team were the only ones using the facilities.

Photo

Azarenka playing in the first round of the 2016 French Open. She retired from the match with an injured knee and later learned that she was pregnant.

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Julian Finney/Getty Images

This is Azarenka’s third team in three seasons, a high turnover for a player of her caliber. Her longtime coach and mentor Sam Sumyk, with whom she is now estranged, surprised her by leaving to work with Eugenie Bouchard in early 2015 and now coaches Garbiñe Muguruza. Azarenka then hired Wim Fissette as coach and added Sascha Bajin, Williams’s former hitting partner, to the mix.

Her game progressed under the well-respected Fissette, but Azarenka said he chose to coach the British star Johanna Konta rather than wait for Azarenka’s return.

Azarenka said she parted ways with Bajin, who is now working with Caroline Wozniacki, because she could no longer justify having a full-time hitting partner.

Joyce, based in Boca Raton, Fla., did not arrive in Minsk until this month. Azarenka appreciates that he is straightforward.

“I don’t like my ego stroked too much,” she said. “Michael’s a strong personality. I liked that, and when I spoke to him, he pointed out a couple things that really caught my attention and I thought, hmm, I can learn from that.”

Joyce, who is 44 and has a young child of his own, had been working with the young American player Jessica Pegula for five years. But, he said, “as the years have gone on, I’ve kind of had an itch to try to work with somebody who could get back to the top.”

He did some research on athletes’ returning after pregnancy and was reassured.

“It actually looks like, in a lot of cases, the women come back stronger,” he said. “I went out to L.A. and spent some time with her and was so impressed. For someone who has been already No. 1 and has won Grand Slams, she was just picking my brain. You could tell she’s hungry to get back.”

Azarenka wants to improve her serve and be more aggressive in her service games. She wants to upgrade her tactics and movement, and strengthen her body. Azarenka began hitting again on Feb. 4, close to seven weeks after giving birth, but she has focused mostly on fitness to prevent injuries. Though she said Williams was urging her to return for the French Open in May, Azarenka is taking her time.

She certainly is not slacking off in the gym. The exercises in her Monday session were diverse and creative, often demanding a mix of draining effort and fine-tuned motor skills (rather like tennis). At one stage, Azarenka faced off with McKeague. They kept their hands near their ears and then, on a trainer’s signal, reached down quickly to try to be the first to snatch a tennis ball off the floor.

“I think he’s scared to beat her,” said Dionne Sanders, Azarenka’s personal assistant.

McKeague did not rebut that, cracking a grin as they dueled even if Azarenka did not.

“The way I know V is getting stronger is I get no blanket at night,” he said, laughing. “She grabs it in her sleep.”

This is McKeague’s fourth trip to Belarus. A former college hockey player, he trains here with a local hockey club. His Russian — the lingua franca in Minsk — remains limited, but his appreciation for the cuisine (above all, Ala Azarenka’s) and the culture is growing.

Azarenka seems more connected to Belarus, too. She left young, at 14, to train in Spain and then in the United States. In an interview before the 2015 season, she was frequently negative about the progress in Belarus and expressed sadness about the mood of the people and the heavy drinking there.

But Leo’s birth has brought her closer to her roots. She was much more upbeat in Minsk, both at lunch surrounded by her new team and around the dinner table in the house she had built for her family with her winnings.

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