Is A Third Australian Open Title In the Mix For Azarenka?

Victoria Azarenka (photo: Australian Open video)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 21, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Make no mistake, Victoria Azarenka came to play. After her lopsided 6-0, 6-2 third-round victory over Elina Svitolina that was over in a mere 67 minutes, is a third Australian Open title in the mix?

From 2009 to 2016, Azarenka was a mainstay in the second week of the Australian Open, reaching the fourth round or better in eight straight years, which included her two career Grand Slam wins at Melbourne Park back in 2012 and 2013. This year is her first time back in the round 16 in six years, in a tournament she loves playing in.

While it’s been a nine-year hiatus since the 32-year-old from Belarus won her second major, as her third-round match with Svitolina attested, Azarenka showed she still has the fire in her shots and, just as important, the desire in her heart. Through her first three matches, she’s dropped just nine games.

“I’m happy to be here, I love to play in Australia,” Azarenka told the crowd afterward with a big smile on her face following her third victory of the tournament, which improved her record to 5-1 on the young season.

In Friday’s first match on Rod Laver Arena under sunny blue skies, the former No. 1 and current 24th seed made a statement, not only by taking the opening set in bagel fashion 6-0 that required just 25 minutes. Azarenka was also aggressive off the ground, took control from the start and also showed her resiliency during the final game of the match, which turned into a 22-point, 8-deuce marathon against the Ukrainian No. 1 to wrap up the victory, which advanced her into the round of 16.

While the 24th-ranked Azarenka came in leading the head-to-head against No. 17 Svitolina 4-0, she’s been the lower-ranked player in all four of those meetings – and she was again today. However, like the other times, ranking didn’t matter. It was merely a number.

From start to finish, Azarenka was in the right frame of mind – completely in the zone. As for Svitolina, she couldn’t find the court with her serve or her groundstrokes – and her mindset didn’t seem to be on the match until it was too far out of reach.

Azarenka took advantage of three double faults and 13 unforced errors by the 15th-seeded Svitolina, while winning 100 percent (9 of 9) of her first-serve points to win the opening set. She hit six winners while outpointing her opponent 25-10. Then, she saved all four break points she faced in the second set while breaking Svitolina two additional times.

It took Svitolina until the fourth game to gain a break point against Azarenka, but the Belarusian quickly erased it and went on to hold serve for a 3-1 advantage. Then, Azarenka held to love for a 4-2 lead and a fourth-round date on Sunday against No. 4 seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic (who would later go on to beat No. 26 seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4) loomed closer. Then, to add insult to injury, Azarenka broke Svitolina for the fifth time with a lovely, two-handed backhand lob to put the match on her racquet.

Serving at 5-2, Svitolina stifled Azarenka’s first two match-point opportunities and gained a break point with a demonstrative down-the-line backhand. Soon, Azarenka saved a second break point with her third ace and gained a third match point, which Svitolina promptly saved with another backhand winner. She saved a fourth match point, this time with a forehand down the line as the game reached its 16th point.

Then, Azarenka gained match point No. 5 with a volley winner at the net as the game eclipsed 12 minutes. But Svitolina remained pesky and gained an eighth deuce. However, Azarenka took advantage of an unforced error that set up match point No. 6. This time, she didn’t throw away her shot. Instead, Svitolina netted a returnable forehand and the match was finally Azarenka’s to savor.

Not only did Azarenka outpoint Svitolina 59-34, she controlled the net winning 11 of 12 points and converted five of seven break-point opportunities. Azarenka finished with four aces and 17 winners overall to just nine unforced errors. Meanwhile, Svitolina countered with 15 winners but made 26 unforced errors. She was zero-for-four in break-point opportunities.

“I feel like I played really well tactically and didn’t let [Elina] into the game,” Azarenka said during her on-court interview with Casey Dellacqua. “She’s a great competitor, a great defender. I had to try to stay on top of her as much as possible and kind of not let her breathe in a way. That was my goal before the match. I feel like I executed it well.”

• An Australian Open quarterfinalist in 2021, American Jessica Pegula, seeded 21st this year, reached the round of 16 for the second time with a 7-6 (3), 6-2 win over No. 63 Nurria Parrizas Diaz of Spain, in one hour and 32 minutes. Next, Pegula will play No. 5 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who advanced with a solid 6-4, 6-1 win over No. 28 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia in an hour and 22 minutes on John Cain Arena. Sakkari hit 12 winners and was broken just once. She outpointed her opponent 63-42.

Friday’s Australian Open results

Saturday’s Australian Open order of play

Sam Stosur: ‘I’ve done more than possible’

After No. 10 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenova of Russia beat Australian wild card Sam Stosur 6-2, 6-2 on Thursday afternoon, the two former doubles partners shared a warm hug at the net. Stosur had announced earlier that the Australian Open would mark the end of her storied singles career, which included winning a Grand Slam title at the 2011 US Open. She will continue to play doubles through the remainder of the 2022 season.

After the match, Pavlyuchenkova called it “a special moment for Sam and I want to give it to her. It was emotional for me today. I had goosebumps when everyone was clapping for Sam. She’s a wonderful human being and a great tennis player. Thanks, Sam.”

Liam Broady: Receives shoutout from Billie Jean King

Great Britain’s Liam Broady, who lost in the first round on Tuesday to Nick Kyrgios received cheers from Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King for showing support for the LGBTQ community by wearing rainbow-colored shoe laces at the Australian Open.

Alexander Zverev and Dylan Alcott: Great banter between two gold medalists

Following his second-round win Wednesday, Germany’s Alexander Zverev was interviewed on court by Australian wheelchair champion Dylan Alcott. It proved to be a live exchange.

Nick Kyrgios: Unfiltered after dark

Win or lose, Nick Kyrgios will tell you what’s on his mind during his press conferences. Thursday night, following 7-6 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 loss to No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev in Rod Laver Arena, the Australian wild card shared his thoughts:

“I thought the atmosphere was awesome. That’s what sport is. You’ve got the most entertaining player playing in his home slam on Rod Laver. You’d expect the crowd to be like that. I can understand it’s a gentleman’s game, but it’s about time that people embraced some sort of different energy in this sport. Otherwise, it will die out. It’s just that simple.

“We all know people can doubt me as much as they want but they know I’m going to turn up and show up for matches like this. That’s why the crowd is the way it is, that’s why the tickets are the way they are, that’s why the views are the way they are. It all speaks for itself.”

Now it can be told

• Following her second-round loss to Alizé Cornet on Thursday, World No. 3 and No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza blamed a COVID-19 outbreak within her support team for a disruption in her preparations for the Australian Open.

“It’s been a pretty stressful start of the year also with my team,” Muguruza said during her post-match press conference. “They all got COVID before coming here. We ere for 15 days apart.

“It was hard for me for the preparation to come to the Aussie, swing and play and perform well. That was tricky a little bit.”

• There are quite few variations of the red Nike kit that many of the women are sporting this week at the Australian Open. On Wednesday, both Victoria Azarenka and Paula Badosa sported a different version – zippered top – than they did on Monday, when each wore an off-center neckline. Both players won their first and second-round matches to advance to Friday’s third round. On Friday, both Azarenka and Badosa repeated their Wednesday look.

Around Melbourne Park

• Bromance American style: On Thursday, Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe slugged it out for two hours and 40 minutes on John Cain Arena. The 20th-ranked Fritz won 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5). After match point was won, the two players aired a warm embrace at the net.

• The thrill of victory with Benoit Paire, Alizé Cornet and Christopher O’Connell.

What they’re writing

The Washington Post: “In a gloomy month of tennis, Andy Murray provided a moment of greatness” by John Feinstein.

The New York Times: “Sabalenka Struggles, Then Prevails …” by Christopher Clarey.

By the numbers

• Women’s No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty conceded only three games in her opening Australian Open two matches, the fewest by any player in route to the third round since 2013.

• Two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka has won 24 of her past 25 matches in the city of Melbourne.

“Quotable …”

Savoring the thrill of victory with Alizé Cornet

Catching up with what Iga Swiatek is reading

What they’re sharing on social media

Daniil Medvedev / Happy to win

Marin Cilic / Big thank you