Fighting-fit Azarenka battles past Kuznetsova

 - Danielle Rossingh

After an injury-interrupted couple of months, the former world No.1 wins the battle of major champions

Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Pain-free after months of agony due to a back injury, Victoria Azarenka is finally enjoying her tennis again.

Having come to Paris with just one match on clay under her belt, the former world No.1 from Belarus battled past fellow dual major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 to book a spot in the second round.

Having finished the 2020 season on a high with a spot in the US Open final, Azarenka had a difficult spring.

A back injury she sustained during a tournament in Doha early March, which led to her withdrawal before the semi-final, had been “mentally kind of draining and definitely not helping,” Azarenka told reporters after beating Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion.

The injury also forced the 31-year-old Belarusian to pull out of a clay-court event in Madrid after her opening round earlier this month. 

Despite “a lot of MRIs,” Azarenka said she “couldn't really figure out what's wrong”.

“So it was a bit of a battle,” she said. “Things were getting better. Then I play and things are getting worse. Mentally it was very, very difficult. Taking decisions to withdraw and not play was even more difficult for me.”

The turning point came about two-and-a-half weeks ago, when the two-time Australian Open winner was finally able to practise pain-free.

“It was really encouraging,” she said. “Today playing, I don’t know how long, two-plus hours we played with a lot of movement, a lot of tenacity, so I'm happy about that.”

Billed beforehand as a mouthwatering clash between two veteran major winners, the match did not quite live up to expectations as the each woman was broken seven times.

Although Azarenka had triumphed in six of their 10 previous career meetings, Kuznetsova had won in straight sets when they met in Paris 13 years ago.

Having trailed 4-2 in the first set, as shadows started to fall over the Court Philippe Chatrier, Kuznetsova fought her way back to 4-all, only to be broken again. Having gifted Azarenka two set points on a backhand error, the Russian dropped the first set on a forehand error.

Another momentum shift followed at the start of the second set, with Kuznetsova taking a 2-0 lead as her opponent dropped serve with three double faults. Suddenly, the former world No.1 was in trouble as she trailed 5-0. After Azarenka clawed back two games, Kuznetsova took the second set 6-2 with a huge backhand winner.

Azarenka regrouped in a topsy-turvy decider, racing to a 3-1 lead as she improved her serve and forced her opponent into making mistakes with powerful groundstrokes. Having squandered a first match point at 5-2, Azarenka converted the second match point as she served at 5-3.

Playing in her 14th Roland-Garros, Azarenka said she enjoyed competing more than ever before, even though life in the Covid bubble during tournaments can be tough.

“I feel like I'm motivated more than I was before,” she said. “I feel happy. I feel like I'm learning more, and I'm pushing my own potential.”

Azarenka has not been beyond the third round in Paris since a run to the semi-final in 2013. Could this be her year?

“I always feel like I can do something at any tournament,” Azarenka said. “I always believe in myself. I am always going to push myself to the limit.”

Up next, the talented Danish teenager Clara Tauson, who upset the in-form Jennifer Brady of the US in the first round of Roland-Garros last year.

“Not to be disrespectful to a player, but I don't really know her,” said Azarenka. “I have not really seen her play, so it's going to be a bit of homework for me to do.”