Monday 26 August 2019

Azarenka takes aim at attitude to tennis mothers

Belarus ace calls for major changes in treatment of pregnant women in game

Serve and volley: Victoria Azarenka will be travelling to Wimbledon this week with her son Leo (2) who accompanies her to every tournament she plays. Photo: REUTERS/Tony O'Brien
Serve and volley: Victoria Azarenka will be travelling to Wimbledon this week with her son Leo (2) who accompanies her to every tournament she plays. Photo: REUTERS/Tony O'Brien

Charlie Eccleshare

Multiple grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka has reignited the debate around the treatment of pregnant athletes by revealing that she left a sponsor after "facing a situation that wasn't pleasant" around the time she gave birth to her son Leo three years ago.

While declining to reveal who the sponsor was, Azarenka revealed on the eve of Wimbledon that she had left them after announcing she was pregnant in July 2016.

The revelation comes less than two months after several athletes - including British distance runner Jo Pavey and American sprinter Allyson Felix - criticised Nike for cutting off sponsorship payments once they were pregnant, and underlines the pressures that pregnant athletes face.

Azarenka stressed that Nike - which has since changed its pregnancy policies - has always been entirely supportive, but when asked if any other sponsors had dropped her, she responded: "No current ones, but I faced a situation that wasn't pleasant."

Visibly discomfited by the memory, Azarenka did not want to divulge details, but added: "We left them [as a result of the pregnancy]. It did not come out publicly, but we'll see. It's in the past - I don't feel like bringing that up is going to change that."

Change on a broader scale, however, is something that Azarenka is desperate to achieve. After Serena Williams, Azarenka is the most high-profile tennis mother, and she is determined to take advantage of her position on the player council to effect meaningful reform - citing the legacy of pioneers such as Billie Jean King as an inspiration.

"Women need to keep fighting," she says. "We fight for equality every single day and I hope in the near future the demand for equality won't be necessary. It will just be normal."

Azarenka, a 29-year-old Belarusian, is one of the most feared players on the tour. Having been a talented junior, she really started to make a noise - literally, as her shrieking while striking the ball is notorious - at the start of this decade. Between 2012 and 2013, she became world No 1 and won two Australian Opens, as well as an Olympic gold medal.

After a nasty run of injuries, Azarenka looked set to win more Majors in 2016 following a storming start to the year, but she announced her pregnancy that July, before giving birth to baby Leo five months later.

Azarenka returned to the tour in the summer of 2017, reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon in her first tournament back. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that she had split with Leo's father, Billy McKeague. The pair have been locked in a bitter custody battle since.

Partly as a consequence of this, Azarenka has since played to a reduced schedule. She skipped the 2017 US Open two years ago and last year's Australian Open amid reports that she could not leave her California home until the custody dispute had been settled.

In spite of these pressures Azarenka has maintained a solid ranking - she is currently No 40 in the standings - and has been at the vanguard of change in women's tennis.

During the past year she led the player council's successful lobbying of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) to change its rules on players returning from pregnancy.

The WTA announced last December that players could use a special ranking for a longer period of up to three years after giving birth and at an increased number of tournaments.

There were also changes made to the seeding system, which was a major talking point last summer when the returning Williams was seeded at Wimbledon only after the club's committee made a special intervention.

Azarenka is not stopping there: her dream is for female players to be granted maternity pay should they leave the tour to have a child.

"I want to keep pushing the needle forward, and right now I think paid maternity leave is really important," she said at Wimbledon, where she will face Alize Cornet, of France, in the first round today.

"For tennis players, with our physicality, the way we're making money, there is a need to take the break for pregnancy. It is important - you need to feel secure for yourself to be able to have a family.

"Paid maternity leave is one of the biggest changes I would like to see because the WTA is the biggest women's sport and has the opportunity to be a pioneer in that field. I hope we're going to take that stance."

Continuing the legacy of her forebears, including Venus Williams, who in modern times led the fight for equal prize money, is one of Azarenka's key driving forces.

"I have a lot more goals because, before me, there were people who made our lives a lot better in tennis with things like equal prize money. So now it's our time to continue to do that and I'm going to try everything I can to make it happen."

The determination in Azarenka's voice is matched by the affection she shows when the conversation turns to her son Leo, who is two-and-a-half.

He travels with his mum to every event, including this Wimbledon, and enjoyed a play date with Serena's daughter Alexis Olympia at SW19 last year. Azarenka says managing her role as a parent and a professional tennis player has been even tougher than she imagined.

"I thought it would be so easy," she says. "But to actually feel OK with going to work and taking time for yourself it's a very hard balance.

"Your priorities change, and before my son everything was about tennis, all about me. Now it's not and I'm good with that, but I just need to find the ways to manage it better."

Mother, tennis player and pioneer is quite the load to manage, and, as King reflected on her own career, advocacy can come at the expense of titles.

Does Azarenka feel like she needs to prioritise her campaigning for equality over winning more grand slams?

"Well it's both," she says. "I don't think it's one or the other. I think they should come together."

Thinking about the question some more, she adds: "We are tennis players for a short part of our life, but to be able to help the game to be better that's the most important thing for sure."

A tumultuous few years have certainly taken a toll and, at January's Australian Open, a tearful Azarenka used the word "struggle" 12 times in an emotional press conference after losing in the first round to Laura Siegemund.

However, having Leo by her side invariably makes things easier.

"When you have kids it forces you to learn a lot of things about you and to adjust, and be patient," Azarenka says.

"It's a lot of work, but it's the best job and the best feeling."

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