Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Azarenka, Stephens and the irony of a draw

There is such a thing as a monster draw and even if Victoria Azarenka refuses to admit it, the former world No1 surely must realise that she has fallen into tennis’ equivalent to a World Cup’s group of death.

The Belarusian also refuses to say that she feels any differently being unseeded at a major, even though it is the first time since the 2007 US Open Azarenka is not one of the 32 players typed in bold in a draw.

A foot injury has taken Azarenka on a trip down the rankings to her current place of 44 and it meant that she gets to take on world No8 Caroline Wozniacki as early as the second round.

After handling a tough first round against Sloane Stephens yesterday, Azarenka will have to maneuver past Wozniacki and potentially world No1 Serena Williams in the last eight if she hopes to make it out of her quarter alive.

Being an unseeded player, it's not a surprise that I have a tough draw or tough opponents in the early round. I just need to go through that. I accept the challenges,” Azarenka said after defeating 2013 semi-finalist, Stephens, 6-3, 6-2 on Tuesday.

Ironically, it was the third consecutive year that Azarenka has taken on Stephens in Melbourne.

The two-time Australian Open champion may have been conservative in her reaction to her draw but Stephens, who has also seen her ranking slip, certainly wasn’t.

I knew I was going to play her. I was like ‘of course I’m not seeded, she’s not seeded and we’re going to play each other, that’s just how it’s going to be’. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it happened,” said Stephens.

I saw (in the second round) I would have played Caroline Wozniacki or Taylor Townsend, the draw is rigged I swear. I need to go talk to Craig Tiley because this is ridiculous,” the American dryly joked.

Two years ago, Stephens started a six-slam streak where she made the second week in each one. However, in her last three majors, she’s won only one match. It is why she, like Azarenka, was unseeded this Australian Open.

I played some tough players in the first round in the last couple of slams,” said the 21-year-old.

It’s tough, it sucks, it’s a lot less money I tell you… it sucks being out a grand slam early, going home and watching… that’s not fun. But definitely something that I grow from.

I was watching the other day and Youzhny is like on his 53rd straight grand slam. If I play that long, I have a long way to go. To dwell on the last three, then it’s not looking good for the rest of the 50 I’m going to play. I just look forward to the next one, it’s one of my favourite slams.”

Stephens showed glimpses of her ripping forehand but Azarenka was clinical at the net, winning almost every point she played up front, and managed to dictate with her deep shots to advance.

I felt pretty good. I think from the beginning I started to be pretty focused and just maintained that intensity,” said Azarenka.

Her next opponent, Wozniacki, also had a tough opener against lefty teenager Taylor Townsend, who arguably has the most exciting game amongst all the up-and-coming Americans.

The No8 seed beat Townsend, who won the 2012 Australian Open singles and doubles junior titles, 7-6 (1), 6-2, to book her date with her good friend Azarenka.

The ex-world No1 had some wrist trouble coming into Melbourne but assured she is passed the problem.

Speaking of her premature clash with Azarenka in the second round tomorrow, Wozniacki said: “Whether you have to beat her in the second round or fourth round, whatever, doesn't matter if you want to win the tournament.”

Top-seeded Serena Williams coasted through her first round 6-0, 6-4 over Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck.

Williams, who just entered her 100th consecutive week ranked No1, wrapped up her win in 61 minutes but says she was nervous despite the lopsided score line.

I had the jitters going out in the first match of a grand slam. So, yeah, it's never super easy to be the one that everyone wants to beat,” said Williams.

Double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova banished her negative memories from a shock opening round exit in Melbourne last year by convincingly taking out unheralded Dutchwoman Richel Hogenkamp 6-1, 6-4.

The No4 seed confessed she was nervous though, especially with so many seeds dropping like flies in the women’s side. “During the match and during the morning and waiting time, it wasn't really easy for me to handle it. So I'm glad that I did better than the last year,” said the Czech power-hitter.

I saw yesterday many of us seeded players, they went out. Of course, it stays in your mind and it's always difficult. I know how it feels. I lost first round last year.”

No13 seed Andrea Petkovic was one of those unexpected upsets on Tuesday, the German squandering a 7-5, 5-3 lead en route to a three-set defeat to USA’s Madison Brengle.

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