But it had been some time since the two had faced off, the last time being two years ago at this very tournament, a win to Halep. Since then, the popular Romanian had gone on to reach No1 and had held that spot for 64 weeks. Of course, Azarenka had also enjoyed a residency at the top—51 weeks—but that was way back in February 2013.
However, in the interim, the woman from Belarus had been absent from the tennis stage for long stretches, first with injuries, then to have her son Leo in 2016, and was finally kept in the United States through a prolonged custody battle.
Along the way, and through these personal trials, she had shown considerable resilience, but had managed to play only six Majors since having her son, and had won only seven matches at those six.
Needless to say, her ranking suffered too, dipping outside the top 300, and only a year ago did she break back inside 100, gradually up to her current 40.
This year, she made her first final in Monterrey since winning the ‘sunshine double’ of Indian Wells and Miami in 2016. She also reached a couple of quarter-finals, and was starting to pick up some big-name wins such as Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber.
But the consistency was missing, so although she had cruised through some dangerous opening opposition, Alize Cornet and Ljla Tomljanovic, for the loss of only 10 games, Halep was a different proposition.
The Romanian was not having her best season, and was yet to win a title in 2019. But that followed an outstanding year in which she won three titles, including the French Open, and she had made the Doha and Madrid finals this year to stack up a decent tally of 31-10 this year. She also counted among her achievements two quarters and a semi at Wimbledon.
But Azarenka started the stronger, working two break points on Halep’s first service game. She could not convert, but Azarenka made the breakthrough at the next time of asking, 3-1.
However, Halep was just warming up, and broke twice in a row to take the lead with her precision strikes from corner to corner. A love hold and she was 5-3. Another wayward game from Azarenka, the worst being an easy smash into the net, and the set was done, 6-3.
Halep opened the second set with a love hold, and both then worked break chances as the rallies grew longer and more intense, the roars from each louder, the clenched fists more frequent. But Azarenka began to struggle to maintain the accuracy and depth that Halep was achieving, and the errors flowed.
Azarenka grew increasingly frustrated at her errors, as Halep broke twice and, with 66 minutes on the clock, she sailed into the second week here, 6-1.
The Belarusian afterwards rued the slew of errors, and there were 33 of them for just 13 winners:
“I don’t really know what happened. I started couple games feeling pretty good and stuff and just couldn’t find the court. Missed just way too many easy shots, and those things you can’t afford against top players—when you hit, like, a metre from the net and you miss the ball, you’re not going to win.
“I created all the opportunities. I didn’t give myself a chance. To come out and play like that on Centre Court, very, very disappointed.”
Halep, naturally, was very pleased with her performance:
“I’m very satisfied. I think was my best match this year. I played really well. I felt actually very confident. I’ve been aggressive all the match, even if I was 3-1 down first set.
“I expected a tough one. I expected she’s going to play well and she’s going to hit strong, so I knew that… I’m really happy that I could win against a player like Vika because she’s a great one.”
Halep would have to wait some time to discover her next opponent. As she pointed out in her press conference, it looked as though Polona Hercog, ranked 60, was going to end the breakout run of the 15-year-old American Coco Gauff.
The Slovak won the first set, and had two match-points in the second, but the remarkable young American, who beat her hero Venus Williams in the first round, and a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, Magdalena Rybarikova, in the second, chipped and defended, and kept the long rallies going to break down the 28-year-old.
Gauff went on to win the tie-break, 7-6(7), and thrilled the packed Centre Court with her mature tactics and near flawless tennis, but the third set showed the nerves of both women in a long cat-and-mouse battle with precious few break chances on either side.
One exchange of breaks took them to 5-5, and Gauff, serving first, edged it to 6-5. Finally, Hercog blinked at the key moment with a lob landing just long, 7-5. The young American leaped into the air in joy—along with almost 15,000 fans who have taken this new star to their hearts.
Gauff had already made headlines by becoming the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon in the Open era. Then she became the youngest player to reach the last 32 since 1991. She beat the player she most admired in the world, Venus—and picked up a bit of support from Roger Federer along the way. Indeed, his management team have already signed her up.
No wonder she beamed as she came off court for her BBC interview, and confidently announced:
“I always knew I could come back whatever the score was.”
Who knows where this headline-making storyline will end, but it continues on Saturday with a mixed doubles debut with the new young British star, Jay Clarke.
Elsewhere in this bottom quarter of the draw, No14 seed Caroline Wozniacki lost out to Shuai Zhang, 6-4, 6-2. The 30-year-old Chinese woman, ranked 50, had never won a match in five previous visits to Wimbledon, and has now won three—for the loss of only 15 games. What is more, she is into the second round of the women’s doubles, too.
In the other quarter of the bottom half, No3 seed Karolina Pliskova continued to look impressive after her Eastbourne title run by beating the tricky Su-Wei Hsieh 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. The tall Czech broke the No28 seed in the third game of the decider, and will next play compatriot Karolina Muchova, who beat Anett Kontaveit 7-6(7), 6-3.
No8 seed Elina Svitolina beat the fast-rising No31 seed Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-2, and will next meet No21 seed Petra Martic.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge