By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) - Few players have been thrown as many curve balls in their career as former world number one Victoria Azarenka but the Belarussian fighter is back and hunting Grand Slam titles again.
When she reached the 2013 U.S. Open final it was her fourth Grand Slam final appearance in the last eight she had contested, including winning back-to-back Australian Opens, but it was to be her last for seven long years.
First a persistent foot injury in 2014, then a year-long maternity break in 2016-17 before a split with her partner and a custody battle over son Leo that was not settled until 2018 put her career on the back burner.
Not only that but while Azarenka was trying to rediscover the old spark her mother was battling breast cancer.
Many might have faded away, especially with a new generation of big hitters emerging, but Azarenka is made of tough stuff.
She missed this year's Australian Open due to personal issues but since the resumption of tennis after the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic she has clicked.
After winning the Western & Southern Open the 31-year-old rolled back the years at the U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams in the semis before losing to Naomi Osaka in the final.
Last week on Rome's claycourts she beat Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin 6-0 6-0 before losing to Garbine Muguruza in the quarter-finals, only her second loss in 16 matches.
She is back up to 14th in the WTA rankings and will be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2016 French Open when she withdrew in the first round because of a knee injury.
While the French Open claycourts have always proved a tough surface for the hardcourt-loving Azarenka, she did reach the semi-finals in 2013 when she lost to Maria Sharapova.
Since then she has made the third round only once in four visits but believes her style has evolved to be a better all-rounder.
"You have to be a little bit more adaptive on clay, move back and play longer rallies," Azarenka said in Rome.
"With years I've developed a better vision of the game. Sometimes, especially when you're young, if you're winning, you kind of want to stick to that and you're scared to try things.
"Maybe the results didn't show the last couple of years but I have always been eager to learn to improve, to develop, and I think that's really good."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)