Vika's patience gets her through

Azarenka takes advantage of former champ's serving woes in battle of Grand Slam champions.

Victoria Azarenka - Roland-Garros 2019 - 1er tour©Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Ian Chadband

Like some reckless poker player recalling faintly the day she once hit the jackpot in Paris a couple of years ago, Jelena Ostapenko wagered wildly, but ran into someone who was playing it safer, and playing it smarter at Roland-Garros on Tuesday. Going all in against a fellow Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka proved a very poor bet.

It’s a thrill to watch Ostapenko when she’s shooting for the stars. Sometimes though, you feel like peeping between fingers clasped over your eyes, such is the manic abandon of her all-or-nothing approach. This time, she admitted she “rushed” playing her strongest hands and ended with nothing, defeated 6-4, 7-6(4).

On a blustery, cool afternoon on Court Simonne-Mathieu, it always felt as if this was a game that was going to be played to the 2017 champion’s tune. Unfortunately, Ostapenko’s racquet wasn’t singing, though.

She still had the lion’s share of the chips in the shape of her booming groundstrokes to win this neighbourly dust-up between Latvia and Belarus but it was almost painful to behold those 33 searing winners being accompanied by nearly twice as many unforced errors, 60, when the equivalent figures for the much more patient and solid Azarenka were 12 and 19.

Ostapenko, who’s been down on her luck of late, still might have won if not for her inability to cope with the windy conditions. Constantly having to abort her ball toss, her serving proved wholly calamitous. You can’t hope to beat a double Grand Slam champion with 17 double faults on your ledger.

Not that Azarenka didn’t struggle too, with some of the fare resembling a battle between two women trying almost too hard to prevail in a match which, even the Belarusian admitted, she had been "highly anticipating”.

“But the important point is to force her to go for more, and that's where you get some of those free points which look like unforced errors,” noted Azarenka. 

In the opening set, neither could hold serve until Vika finally prevailed at the fifth attempt and then watched Ostapenko hand her the stanza with her 10th and 11th woeful doubles.

At the set changeover, Ostapenko sat numbed, trying to work out how she had missed so many chances to take control of the match. Maybe, beneath the towel hiding her face for a minute, she was already contemplating the prospect of a second successive first round exit at Roland-Garros. 

To her credit, though, the fighting spirit was still intact. With her delivery much improved, she dug deep to save two match points at 5-4 down and then even broke Azarenka to serve for the set.

Alas for the 21-year-old, two wayward backhands and another double saw Azarenka take the match into a tie-break and from that point as the rains started to fall, there never seemed any doubt that, as the more streetwise match player, she would out-duel Ostapenko, beat the weather and prevail after an hour and three-quarters.

A significant win, too. “She's one of the players that you never know what's coming, and she doesn't really give a lot of rhythm," said Azarenka. "So for the first round, that was something very dangerous for me. I think any win at the beginning gives you a little bit boost of confidence for sure.”

Next up for Azarenka? Only the world No.1 Naomi Osaka. “Just the usual second round match,” laughed Azarenka. Osaka won’t be laughing, though....