Australian Open 2015: Dayglo Azarenka dazzles against Wozniacki

Victoria Azarenka beats Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to reach the third round of the Australian Open

There were two key questions ahead of the women’s draw at this year’s Australian Open: In whose quarter would two-time former champion Victoria Azarenka fall, and what form would she bring to the court?

The reason for the questions was the troubled year that the tall and powerful woman from Belarus had endured in 2014. Foot and knee injury had disrupted a season in which she would play only nine tournaments and finish outside the top 10 for the first time since 2008, and at her lowest ranking since 2006.

That all meant that the extrovert Azarenka was unseeded in a Grand Slam for the first time in eight years. She arrived at her most successful Major ranked 44 and with just one win to her name this year—her first-round trouncing of Sloane Stephens.

As ill luck would have it, Azarenka not only fell into the quarter of the top seed and her most formidable rival, Serena Williams, but right in the path of the No8 seed, her friend from junior days, Caroline Wozniacki.

The Dane had herself suffered a slip in form and rankings in 2014, though in her case as a result of personal rather than injury problems.

A former No1, Wozniacki slipped to 18 during the spring, her lowest ranking since 2008, but rallied back to reach her second US Open final and to end the year in the top 10 for the sixth consecutive time.

Azarenka was only too aware of the danger: “[Caroline] was showing some great tennis in the end of last year—I know she’s very dangerous. [But] I would like to focus on myself and what I can do to build my game, to prepare as best as I can, and just compete.”

Theirs was not, though, just a friendship but a rivalry, with an even split in previous matches. For they complement one another perfectly: Wozniacki the ultimate counter-puncher who makes up for any lack of outright weapon with incomparable fitness and tactical nous; Azarenka preferring to take on her opponents with aggressive and penetrating play off the ground.

Many expected that such a high-profile match would take centre stage in the Rod Laver Arena, but perhaps their scheduling on the revamped Margaret Court was more appropriate. This would be women’s tennis of the highest order beneath the name of Australia’s most successful tennis player. Of Court’s 24 singles titles, 11 were won at her native Major.

Any questions about Azarenka’s form or intent were quickly allayed: This was statement stuff. Her bold outfit led the way, brilliant optic yellow from head to toe and everywhere in between. Not for her any cut-away dress but high neckline and long sleeves, all in dazzling dayglo. And her tennis followed, a bold and attacking array of ground strokes backed up by constant ventures to the net.

They were tactics to keep Wozniacki on the back foot and scampering to chase down repeated strikes onto her baseline on both wings.

Azarenka broke twice in the space of the first three games, though Wozniacki managed to break back and then survive another break point for 2-3. But already, the Belarusian had hit 10 winners and made eight points out of nine net plays.

Not that Wozniacki was backward in coming forward, and she put together her demanding patterns play with great accuracy and few errors—still single figures by the time she broke back to level the match, 4-4 in 44 minutes.

But the grit and determination of Azarenka was written not just in her tennis but her entire body language. She chastised herself at every error and pounded the ball with precision and pace to the deepest, widest corners before hurtling in to drive a volley away.

It was tennis to wear down even the resistance of the Dane and, in a game of eight and a half minutes, four deuces and four break points, she conceded another break. Azarenka served out the set, 6-4, after almost an hour of gripping tennis.

The second set started in much the same vein, with some testing rallies for both women. And if there were any lingering doubts about Azarenka’s fitness, they could be dismissed. Wozniacki attempted to take matters into her own hands by attacking the net herself, but without the power to open up the court that Azarenka has, she could make little impact.

Wozniacki was broken in the third game and again in the seventh, leaving Azarenka to serve out the match—appropriately enough with a volley—6-2.

So this was a bold statement about Azarenka intentions. Her only loss in Melbourne since 2011 came in her quarter-final exit last year, and she is clearly determined to keep that record intact with an even more aggressive game than before. She hit 31 winners past one of the quickest defenders in the game, and made 21 points from 26 net plays.

It was also a warning across the bows of the woman with serious designs on regaining the title here, Williams, though Azarenka first takes on another seed, No25 Barbara Zahlavova Strycova in Round 3 and then either No11 Dominika Cibulkova or No19 Alize Cornet in the fourth.

It’s a tough road through a Grand Slam draw for unseeded players, but in this topsy-turvey quarter, it may be the seeds who feel the pressure if the dancing, smiling Azarenka continues like this.

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