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Report: Azarenka shows steel after slow start to oust Kenin

  • Gillian Tan

Women's singles first round

In a battle of former Melbourne Park women's singles champions, Victoria Azarenka overcame Sofia Kenin 6-4 7-6(3) on Monday afternoon to book a berth in the second round of Australian Open 2023.

MORE: All the scores from Day 1 at AO 2023

The 24th seed needed two hours and four minutes to secure victory on Margaret Court Arena, ensuring she avoided first-round exits faced in two of her three most recent trips Down Under.

The build-up 

Azarenka hoisted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup in 2012 and 2013, years before Kenin etched her name onto the same trophy in 2020. The duo split their prior meetings, with Azarenka not dropping a game in their most recent encounter: a lopsided 6-0 6-0 victory over the American at the Italian Open in Rome in 2020.

At lead-in tournaments, Kenin reached the semifinals in Hobart and the second round in Auckland while notching a touch more match play than Azarenka, who reached the quarterfinals in the first Adelaide tournament before crashing out at the first hurdle at the second Adelaide International.

Story of the match 

Azarenka, who has won more matches at Melbourne Park than anyone else in the AO 2023 women's singles draw, quickly found herself on the back foot in the first-round battle. The 33-year-old fended off four break points in her opening service game before succumbing to a fifth, falling to an early 0-3 deficit.

MORE: AO 2023 women's singles draw

But a slew of heavy, well-placed groundstrokes from Azarenka produced a string of unforced errors from the 24-year-old Kenin, enabling Azarenka to break the American twice as she raced to a 5-3 lead.

Kenin, playing with strapping down her left adductor, saved three set points before her elder rival served out the first set.

Azarenka's return game was on song as she fought back in the opening set

The unseeded American went for broke in the second set, often dictating points with sizzling down-the-line winners off both wings. Seeking to attack, the vocal American employed drops shots to end tense rallies, albeit with mixed success.

Both players retained their focus despite a brief rain delay and Azarenka survived a shaky service game at 5-6, saving break point to force a second-set tiebreak. The 24th seed, competing in her 15th Australian Open, closed out the match after Kenin slammed a backhand return into the net.

"She's an amazing champion," said an upbeat Azarenka, admitting that she expected a challenge from Kenin, who was often striking the ball like she had nothing to lose. 

"I'm glad I was able to find a way," added the popular right-hander, noting that she didn't play her best.

"It was a nerve-racking match for me," admitted Azarenka, who credited her stability. "I felt like my game wasn't at the best today, but I was able to find a way to win ... I feel that mentally I stayed really strong and I kept looking for solutions."

Key stats

Kenin struck 30 winners to Azarenka's 25, which included seven aces to her opponent's zero. But a mighty 38 unforced errors splayed off the American's racquet, compared to Azarenka's 27. The 33-year-old seed had success at the net, winning 85 per cent of points (11 of 13), and critically won 59 per cent of her second-serve points compared to Kenin's 21 per cent.

"I feel like my serve has been working quite well with intention, with precision, the way I've been able to take it to my advantage," said Azarenka, who also won 75 per cent of her first serve points.

What this means for Azarenka

In the second round, the 24th seed will be favoured to progress deeper into the AO 2023 draw when she faces Argentina's Nadia Podoroska, who defeated lucky loser Leolia Jeanjean of France 6-0 6-3.

The athletic right-hander commended her team's effort over the off-season. "We work hard … we put blood, sweat and tears to go out here and perform our best. It's high pressure and you would think I wouldn't be nervous, but it still means so much to me.

“I want to see how far I can go,” she continued, explaining that she tries to set results-based goals on a step-by-step basis rather than racing to the finish line. "I need to have patience …when you win big, it's hard to be patient."

What's next for Kenin?

Playing under a protected ranking of world No. 4, Kenin should take comfort that she's playing at a level that doesn't reflect her current ranking of 141. 

Kenin went for broke, but had only intermittent success

The Florida resident often had Azarenka on the back foot in rallies, and can look to finesse her margins as the 2023 season reverts back to the Northern hemisphere after the Australian swing.