Tennis

Comeback queens

New mum Azarenka eyes 'special' Wimbledon, 'fearless' Kvitova guns for third crown

Victoria Azarenka is still coming to grips with carrying a stroller around with her tennis rackets when she travels to tournaments these days, but is looking forward to a special Wimbledon after arriving with an "extra member" in tow.

The former world No. 1 returned to the circuit last month after giving birth to Leo in December, and both mother and son have travelled to London as the Belarusian gears up for her first Grand Slam since last year's French Open.

"Being back here with an extra member of my team is really special," Azarenka said yesterday.

"It feels great. I didn't play last year, so it feels like it's been, you know, almost two years that I didn't play here."

Being a mother comes with added responsibility - and luggage - but the good news is that Leo likes to travel, while Azarenka is confident she has struck the right balance between the demands of her sport and her family.

"He's actually a very good traveller," she said.

"I think I stress out more because I want to make sure that everything is going great... He is totally fine. He loves the plane.

"But it's definitely a little bit more luggage.

"And with a stroller there... I didn't know you can't bring your stroller out in London, so we had to carry him all through the airport... till we got to customs, which was really weird."

The 27-year-old said she had initially struggled with being away from Leo and had to trick herself into not feeling any guilt as she prepared for her comeback.

"Well, the changes, it's like 180 in your mentality, your daily activities," said Azarenka, whose son's father is Billy McKeague, a golf instructor whom she met in Hawaii.

"Being in an individual sport, you have to be a little bit more selfish.

"It's a little bit of a mind trick that I have to do... not feel guilty that I don't spend my every free second with my son, which is sometimes tough.

"But it also gives me a really good balance when I am done with my practice or my matches, that I'm able to shut off from tennis, just lose myself with my son."

There have been a number of changes on the circuit during her absence, including a host of unfamiliar faces, and Azarenka's first challenge will be to get past 40th-ranked American teenager Catherine Bellis in her opening match today.

Meanwhile, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova says she feels "fearless" as she returns to the venue that is like a second home to her.

The Czech, who reckoned it was "great to be back" just six months since her career was left hanging in the balance after an attacker stabbed her playing hand, explained on Saturday how life had been put into perspective for her by the trauma.

"I think I am a little bit different on the court and off the court, too," said the 27-year-old, who hopes that the three-year gap between her titles in 2011 and 2014 could prove a happy omen in 2017.

"I think I see life and tennis from a little bit different angle than before.

"Before, I was very nervous before every match. Now I see that I shouldn't be.

"There's things in life that should be more important than just tennis.

"I'm not sure if it is the result of what happened, but maybe I feel a bit fearless because of what happened.

"Sometimes I'm thinking on the court that I already won the biggest fight and, if I fight in the match, it doesn't matter if I win or lose the last point. I will still be happy to play."

This attitude of being somehow freed to play uninhibited tennis has already served the left-hander well, as evidenced by victory in the warm-up Edgbaston grass-court tournament in just the second event of her comeback.

"I felt very surprised. I'm still surprised," said Kvitova, who will play Johanna Larsson in the first round today.

"I think the grass is always giving me extra confidence. Wimbledon feels like my second home. It feels great to be here again.

"I think we still do have great players in the draw, even if (defending champion) Serena (Williams) is not playing.

"I think there's a few favourites, but it's very open. So who knows who going to win?"

- REUTERS

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