Azarenka on a mission
Double Grand Slam champs clash in a highly-anticipated second-round meeting.
No stranger to brutal draws
Since returning from her maternity leave in June 2017, Azarenka’s road back to the top-50 has been an arduous one, both on and off the court. Her draws have been particularly tough, which explains why she doesn’t find it surprising that her first round was against 2017 Roland-Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko and her second round is against the top-ranked Osaka.
Some of her early draws this season alone include: Elina Svitolina (No.7) – Rome R2; Sloane Stephens (No.8) – Madrid R2; Karolina Pliskova (No.4) – Stuttgart R2; Serena Williams (No.10) – Indian Wells R2; Petra Kvitova (No.2) – St. Petersburg R2.
When asked how she felt about facing world No.1 Osaka so early in the draw, like how she got Williams in round two in California, Azarenka said with a laugh: “Or like every single week?
“Well, that would be nothing new to me. Just the usual second-round match,” she added sarcastically.
“But, yeah, it's going to be exciting for me. I love to challenge myself against the best players. I don't think about it. Again, it's a second round. I don't really look at it that way. But it's going to be exciting. I had some good wins in the last couple weeks against top 10 players, so I feel that I'm ready to play against top players.
“Last time we played, it was very one-way match, and so I hope to do better next time.”
Mixed head-to-head history
Azarenka and Osaka have split two career meetings. The Belarusian took their first match in the Australian Open third round in 2016, dropping just two games, while Osaka won their clash in Rome last year 6-0, 6-3. Both will probably agree though that they enter Thursday’s meeting on completely different terms, with Azarenka finding her form recently, and Osaka now a force to be reckoned with at the top of the rankings.
“She's been playing really well recently, and there is no way that it's going to be a similar match to the one I played her in Rome last year. So I'm expecting, like, one of the hardest matches of the year,” Osaka said of Azarenka, adding that she was unaware who her second-round opponent was until she was informed by a reporter during her press conference.
Form on clay
Osaka is 8-1 on clay this season, but also had two injury pre-match withdrawals (ab and thumb) in Stuttgart and Rome. The average ranking of the opponents she beat on the surface in 2019 is 42.
Azarenka is 7-3 on the red dirt this year. Two of those wins came against top-10 opposition, and the average ranking of the rivals she conquered on clay is 31.
At the Slams
Both Osaka and Azarenka are two-time major champs. Osaka is on a 15-match winning streak at the Slams while Azarenka hasn’t made it past the fourth round since the 2016 Australian Open (she didn’t play in four consecutive majors during her maternity leave, and missed two more for personal reasons after her return). Azarenka’s win over Ostapenko on Tuesday, was her first victory at Roland-Garros since 2015.
Both Osaka and Azarenka had trouble on serve in their openers, with each of them getting broken six times by their respective opponents. Osaka stepped up after the first two sets, facing zero break points against Schmiedlova in the decider, and she’ll need to start that way against Azarenka, who is a strong returner and won’t let the Japanese off the hook if she opens up a lead.
Despite her woes in the opening two sets of her first round, Osaka still walked away from Court Philippe-Chatrier having struck 10 aces. It was her sixth match this season with 10 or more aces, posting a 5-1 record in those matches. And her sixth match at a Slam with 10 or more aces (6-0 at Slams).
“I think this is the most nervous I have ever been my entire life during a match,” Osaka admitted after her 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 first-round win over Schmiedlova. The Japanese-Haitian star said she felt she had no control over what she did on the court for that reason.
Asked why she felt so nervous, she said: “Logical reasons: First time playing a Grand Slam as No.1. Won the last two, so I kind of want to win this one really bad. I have never played on Chatrier before. This was my first time. And, yeah, I kind of feel like I'm having the thought of wanting to prove myself again.”
Azarenka’s first round against Ostapenko started with eight consecutive breaks of serve, which is also a sign of early nerves from the Belarusian.
Naturally, whoever handles the occasion better on Thursday will clearly have the upper hand.
Baseline v net play
Here’s a look at how each player performed in their rallies in their respective first rounds.
Osaka was an impressive 7/8 at the net while Azarenka was 3/4.
Thursday’s clash won’t just be about aggression; the more patient player could likely win the match.