Two-time major champions Garbine Muguruza and Victoria Azarenka played back-to-back at MCA on Tuesday, but the two women experienced vastly different outcomes when their AO 2021 campaigns commenced.
Muguruza stormed into the second round with a clinical 6-4 6-0 victory over Margarita Gasparyan, continuing her exceptional start to the season.
But while most expected Azarenka to follow the Spaniard into the last 64, Jessica Pegula had other ideas.
The American played purposeful tennis, as Azarenka struggled physically, to record a 7-5 6-4 triumph – her first ever win in the main draw at Melbourne Park.
Elsewhere, fifth seed Elina Svitolina survived a tough tussle with Marie Bouzkova, saving two break points in the eighth game of the second set, and a set point in the 10th game, before wrapping up a 6-3 7-6(5) victory at RLA.
It sets up a second-round showdown with 16-year-old phenom Coco Gauff, who brushed aside Swiss Jil Teichmann for the loss of just five games.
Earlier on Tuesday, 11th seed Belinda Bencic saw off Lauren Davis 6-3 4-6 6-1, marking her first singles victory in almost a year.
The former world No.4, who played just one event for the rest of 2020 after February, will play two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova for a place in the third round.
In later results, No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova needed just 47 minutes to see off Italy’s Jasmine Paolini.
Pliskova completed the 6-0 6-2 rout with a forehand winner down the line.
“There was not much I did wrong about today,” said the Czech, who next faces Danielle Collins. “I think I started really well, and I was playing quite fast. I was aggressive, and everything went a little bit my way. I was serving well, so I think there was not much what she could do today.”
Pliskova’s countrywoman and quarantine practice partner Karolina Muchova, the No.25 seed, ousted former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko 7-5 6-2.
Azarenka's anguish after breathing difficulties
Azarenka finished 2020 with a flourish, raising hopes of a strong start to the new season.
The 31-year-old won the Western & Southern Open, advanced to the US Open final – her first Slam final since 2013 – and went 18-4 in her last five tournaments, reaching the final at three of them.
But Azarenka’s preparation was impacted by being required to complete a hard hotel-room quarantine upon her arrival to Australia, after a positive COVID-19 test was discovered on her flight.
She played one match after completing quarantine – a gritty victory over Yulia Putintseva in the Grampians Trophy, before withdrawing ahead of her quarterfinal with a lower back complaint – and led Pegula 5-2 in the opening set before the American worked her way back.
Azarenka appeared to struggle with breathing difficulties in the second set – twice requiring medical intervention – and although she continued to battle, Pegula completed a 7-5 6-4 win with an ace out wide.
“I am disappointed that I wasn't able to perform that I knew I could. That's a bit hard to accept today because I knew I can play better, a lot better,” Azarenka said.
“At the same time I feel that I've tried everything I can to be able to be prepared, but unfortunately that hasn't worked out for me.”
AO a springboard to success for Spaniard
Ranked 13th and 14th respectively after both reached Slam finals in 2020, Azarenka and Muguruza have significant history at the Australian Open.
For Azarenka, it was where she truly arrived, ascending to world No.1 after winning her first Grand Slam title here in 2012. She then defended her title in 2013 to continue her love-affair with the event.
Last year, it was where Muguruza re-established herself as one of the game’s premier players.
The 27-year-old won at Roland Garros in 2016 and was a Wimbledon champion in 2017. But since that win at the All England Club, Muguruza played nine Grand Slam tournaments and progressed beyond the fourth round just once. In that same span, she won just two lower-level WTA titles, in Monterrey.
But playing with an incredible focus and intensity last year at Melbourne Park, Muguruza reminded the tennis world just how potent a force she is at her peak.
She dismissed three top-10 opponents – Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Simona Halep, all in straight sets – to advance to her first major final in almost three years, where she ultimately fell to Sofia Kenin.
“I felt like at that moment all those tough moments or the hard work, the kind of puzzle got together. I could play finally at the level that I wanted to,” she said of her AO 2020 run.
“Then reaching the final, it's always incredible. Of course, to win it is even better. Already to be in the final, I felt like this is the right way.
“I'm finally feeling like I can play those finals again. It's like a certainty that what you're doing, it's good.
“I feel like it helped me, for sure, to set up a path of what worked that year.”
Indeed, Muguruza has mostly maintained that high level, winning 25 of her past 33 matches. And she has been especially strong in 2021, winning seven of nine matches, advancing to last week’s Yarra Valley Open final in resounding style and already dropping bagels on three opponents – including Gasparyan on Tuesday.
Her victory over the Russian, completed in a brisk 73 minutes, sets up a second-round bout with qualifier Liudmila Samsonova.