Miami Open 2018

Miami Open 2018: Resurgent Azarenka joins Major champs Ostapenko and Stephens in semis

Victoria Azarenka is through to the semi-finals of the Miami Open, where she will face Sloane Stephens

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka is through to the last four Photo: Marianne Bevis

It is becoming perhaps the biggest story of this final Miami Open in the Keys. Victoria Azarenka, former world No1, two-time Major champion, and three-time Miami champion, is beginning to look like a serious contender for the title once again.

What makes it headline news is that this is only her second tournament since Wimbledon last year and only her fourth since Roland Garros in 2016, when she left the tour to have her first child.

But personal problems concerning the custody of her son kept her away much longer than anticipated, so not until Indian Wells earlier this month did she hit the road again in earnest.

It was immediately clear that she had stayed in great shape, despite so long away from competition, and after a second-round loss in California, she bounced into Miami as a wild card to defy a tough draw and fire her way to the semi-finals. And just to be clear, here is a woman who has played only eight matches in the last 22 months.

But then March in North America has been a happy hunting ground for the tall, slender woman from Belarus. In 2016, she became one of only three women ever to win the “Sunshine Double”, Indian Wells and Miami back to back. And two of only four wins over perhaps her biggest rival, Serena Williams, have come in this Premier Mandatory double-header.

But while she arrived in Miami as a defending champion—she was unable to play last year—few expected her to shine quite so bright quite so soon.

She allowed the talented youngster, Cici Bellis, just three games, and won a tough opening tie-break against US Open finalist and No14 seed Madison Keys before the American was forced to retire. No20 seed Anastasija Sevastova looked ready to halt Azarenka after winning the first set, but the former champion fought back to take the win after more than two hours of play.

Azarenka continued to face high-stakes opponents, first another former champion, Agnieszka Radwanska—for the loss of only four games—and then No5 seed Karolina Pliskova in straight sets.

It was far from easy, that quarter-final, not helped by the strong winds that often plague Crandon Park. Azarenka took a quick break, 2-0, and looked in control with another break for 5-2. But now Pliskova raised her level to break back and battled to a hold. Another break, and she was level at 5-5, only to double-fault on break point, and the Belarusian served out the set, 7-5.

As the temperatures fell through the Miami evening, both women had trouble holding serve in the second set: five straight breaks. But it was the 2016 champion who held first to open a 4-2 lead. One final break, and she was into the semi-finals, 6-3, with her 11th straight win Crandon Park.

It took her over an hour and a half, but Azarenka recognised its significance:

“It feels really good. Before the match, I said it was going to be a great test for me to see where my game is at. I think it gives me a lot of positive things to continue to work on.

“And seeing the progress that I made throughout this whole tournament, playing first round to playing a top-5 player, I made a pretty good improvement.”

Already she will find herself inside the top 100 at around 93, and if she should make it to the final, she is looking at close to No60. She entered the tournament as No186. However, her ambition now faces another tough test. The reigning US Open champion and No13 seed Sloane Stephens showed all the prodigious form that won her first Major six months ago in beating Angelique Kerber for the loss of only three games in barely an hour.

It took the American, who will break into the top 10 for the first time next week, to her first semi-final since that New York victory, for Stephens hit a wall after that breakthrough Major run. She did not win another match all year, picking up her first less than a month ago in Acapulco.

Perhaps more significant for Miami is that Stephens beat Azarenka in her first match in Indian Wells. But while the American is undoubtedly in great form—she beat No3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza before the Kerber win—there is no doubt that Azarenka has come on in leaps and bounds since arriving in Miami.

And as is her way, she hopes for still more of herself this week:

“The possibility of winning [the title] is always in my head. That’s why I play. I don’t come to a tournament just to play. But I’m always taking one match at a time… And as much as people think it’s close, I know how far it is. Until the last point is done when you win, it’s never easy.”

Another debutante Major champion last year, No6 seed Jelena Ostapenko, also discovered her finest tennis to reach her first semi-final of the year with a blistering performance over No4 seed Elina Svitolina.

The two women put on a stunning display of aggressive tennis that took an hour and three quarters and two tie-breaks to decide, and it was the feisty 20-year-old Ostapenko who rode a wave of 44 winners to victory.

She afterwards confirmed:

“Before the match, I knew that I have to be very aggressive. And when I had a chance, I was going for it. Of course, I was missing some because I was trying to play aggressive the whole match, but I think my winners are more than the unforced errors.”

Only just, as it happens: 42. But it was exhilarating stuff, as first one and then the other broke. Ostapenko served for the first set, only to be pegged back again, 5-5, and she fell behind for the first time with a hold by Svitolina. Ostapenko faced down 0-30 in the next game to take it to a tie-break, and that was her cue: She raced to the opening set, 7-6(3).

The 23-year-old Svitolina, one of the form players of the season thus far, had managed just four winners in the first set, but upped her attack in the second. She would add another 11 winners, and edge a lead with an early break, but Ostapenko countered with breaks of her own to stay in touch. And come the ensuing tie-break, Ostapenko again took the initiative with big-strike tennis, 7-6(5).

The youngster goes on to play either 37-year-old No6 seed Venus Williams, a three-time former champion almost two decades ago, or qualifier Danielle Collins. The 24-year-old will be a considerable underdog, but is loving every minute of her Miami experience:

“I’m looking forward to playing somebody I’ve idolized my entire life. I’ve had the best weeks of my life for my tennis. Win or lose, I don’t really have anything to lose! I’m going to go out there and do the best I can.”

• Danielle Collins beat Venus Williams 6-2 6-2 to reach the semi-finals.

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