Australian Open

Azarenka wins Open grudge match

2015-01-20 07:11
Victoria Azarenka (AFP)

Melbourne - Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka stormed through her grudge match with American Sloane Stephens on Tuesday to reach the second round at Melbourne Park.

Azarenka, ranked just 44 going into the season-opening Grand Slam after an injury-marred 2014, showed why she is regarded as the most dangerous unseeded player at the tournament as she downed Stephens 6-3, 6-2.

The Belarussian, who controversially defeated Stephens in the 2013 semi-final with the help of a lengthy medical timeout, admitted before Tuesday's match she was uncertain about the reception that awaited her.

But all was forgiven with the Australian crowd that jeered her two years ago cheering on a display that was reminiscent of the former world number one at her best, before a string of injuries left her battling with depression.

Azarenka left no doubt she was chasing her third Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park after triumphing in 2012 and 2013.

"You've got to win seven matches to win a title and this was a great first round for me to really test my game," the 25-year-old said.

"I'm happy with what I did... Sloane's a tricky opponent who has big weapons so I tried to stay aggressive and take every opportunity and control the game. I really had to stay focused and composed."

Asked whether she had any aches or pains after the testing encounter, a beaming Azarenka replied: "I'm good".

She faces eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki in an enticing second round showdown, an opponent who has a 4-3 win record over her.

"Being an unseeded player, it's not a surprise that I have a tough draw or tough opponents in the early rounds, I accept the challenges," she said.

"(Wozniacki) was showing some great tennis in the end of last year. I know she's very dangerous and we always had some tough matches. I'd like to just focus on myself and what I can do to build my game and prepare as best I can."

Azarenka and Stephens both looked rusty serving early on and exchanged breaks before Azarenka pulled ahead to take the first set in 29 minutes.

Stephens, who has struggled for Grand Slam success since her 2013 final four run, screamed with frustration as Azarenka took control in the second set, hitting pinpoint returns from the baseline and rushing the net with impunity.

"(Rushing the net) is a good weapon to have, to just add that to my game, because I always have a good game from the baseline," said Azarenka.

"Just to mix it up and be able to switch the rhythm, to put some more pressure, it's a good way to do that."

The 21-year-old American, ranked 32 in the world, lifted her own game in response, desperately defending her serve in the second game of the set, which went to deuce seven times.

But it was a temporary reprieve and Azarenka broke her opponent at the next opportunity, overwhelming the American after 75 minutes.


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