“My first thought was ‘my career is over’. I would never play tennis again.”
A surprise pregnancy wasn’t part of Victoria Azarenka’s plan for the 2016 season. At the time, she was ranked sixth in the world, having won in Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami – her 20th WTA title – earlier that year.
Instead, she had to cut her season short, announcing the news of her impending new arrival via social media – sending a tweet which, she says, was like “ripping off a band aid”.
“I was scared,” the 30-year-old Belarusian tells the BBC. “It wasn’t easy.”
Pregnancy was a shock for Azarenka, but it quickly turned into a happy shock. She remembers crying down the phone to her mother, but when questioned, didn’t know why she was upset.
She did, however, fear that she would never step on a tennis court as a professional again.
“But then, it was all about knowing I was going to come back, and when I was going to come back,” says the former world number one, who reached the quarter-finals in Stuttgart last month and will play at next week’s French Open.
“I felt it was a blessing, but I still wanted to have my own dreams and my own career.
“I knew I was going to come back, but my first initial thought was ‘oh my god, I’m never going to play tennis again’.”
Azarenka gave birth to Leo in December 2016 and returned to the tour the following June, reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon just over a week later.
“I’m sure a lot of women won’t be able to relate to me but I felt so much better after [pregnancy],” she says.
“I felt so much stronger physically, and my body became so much better. I felt like my body finally matured into being a woman.”
Azarenka’s return came months after 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams announced her own pregnancy, going on to give birth to her daughter in September 2017.
Since then, maternity policies within tennis have repeatedly hit the headlines, with the WTA canvassing the opinions of players in 2018.
As a result, Azarenka and other leading players on the WTA’s Players’ Council – including Venus Williams and Britain’s Johanna Konta – have successfully campaigned for the introduction of more ranking protection for new mothers on the tour.
Previously, players had to return to play within three years and could use a special ranking for eight tournaments within one year.
From the 2019 season, players coming back from childbirth, or injury, will now be able to use their previous ranking to enter 12 tournaments over a three-year period. They will also not face a seeded player in a tournament’s opening round.
“We have the power to change the rules and we have done,” Azarenka says.
“I think that is what I want my legacy to be, that I’m fighting for women to be more comfortable, to break those stereotypes and move the needle a little forward.
“That evolution is going to continue to break boundaries and the illusion of women in sport.”
‘I don’t love tennis that much any more’ – on changing priorities
“I’ve got to go to work, take pictures with people and smile. Some days I do that with a lot of struggle, but some days are better.”
Life is tough on a “daily basis” for Azarenka. On the surface, it looks idyllic, travelling the world playing tennis: her blonde haired, blue-eyed boy by her side.
But in reality, she admits she wants to “cry, hide and not see anybody”.
Locked in a custody battle over two-year-old Leo since 2017, the past two years have been, and continue to be, a “big challenge” for the two-time Australian Open champion.
While the case has yet to be resolved, Azarenka – ranked world number 51 – returned to the WTA Tour with Leo in tow in 2018, having missed several tournaments, including the 2017 US Open.
But although the experience is one she wouldn’t wish on anyone, she admits it has provided unexpected benefits.