By: Christopher Clarey
Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens have played each other in Melbourne and only in Melbourne, and although the plot lines in their matches have varied greatly, the bottom line has remained the same.
Azarenka had yet to drop a set to Stephens, a younger, speedier American, and Tuesday’s match at the Australian Open was no different, even though Azarenka is unseeded instead of grunting and gazing down from the top of the pyramid. Still, Azarenka, ranked 44th and trying to rebound after a difficult season, clearly will not remain unseeded for long if she can reproduce the level she displayed throughout this 6-3, 6-2 victory over the 32nd-ranked Stephens.
It was a focused, impressive, all-court effort, one in which she was turning toward the ball kids as soon as rallies ended, keen to get the next point started.
Stephens, who reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2013 before losing to Azarenka in a match that turned sour, stayed with her for extended periods. The quality of the exchanges was often high. Stephens, after all, has her own point to prove.
She, too, was unseeded here after a difficult season, which ended because of a wrist injury in September. She, too, is trying to regain her career momentum and has rehired the veteran coach Nick Saviano, her former mentor, who helped Eugenie Bouchard of Canada make her major breakthrough last season.
But on balance, Stephens, 21, again lacked the consistency and the variety required against Azarenka. Although Stephens is just as powerful, she is not yet as clean a hitter of the ball. Azarenka, who returned with her trademark aggression, inflicted damage again and again with her backhand down the line and also helped her cause by showing a new eagerness to get to the net, where she converted on a range of volleys.
It was no classic match, but it was certainly a classic first-round matchup, one made possible by Azarenka’s slide in 2014, which was caused by foot and knee problems and the end of her relationship with the musician Stefan Gordy.
Azarenka, 25, spoke at length about her struggles in an preseason interview last month in Los Angeles, one of her training bases. But she also emphasized that she had not lost any of her appetite for the game, and although she was upset in her first match of the season, losing to Karolina Pliskova in Brisbane, Tuesday’s performance was a different matter. “A better start for me,” Azarenka said. “I really went for the shots, and I took those opportunities that I may have not in my first match in Brisbane. So that’s a little step forward.”
She will need to keep stepping because her draw is not getting easier. In the second round, she will face eighth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, another former world No. 1, who reached the final of the United States Open last year and repeatedly pushed Serena Williams in the closing stretch of the season. “Being an unseeded player, it’s not a surprise that I have a tough draw or tough opponents in the early rounds,” Azarenka said.
Meanwhile, Stephens, now 2-3 in 2015, will try to regroup. “It’s the third tournament of the year,” Stephens said. “Long way to go, and I’m obviously disappointed that I lost today, but if I dwell on this in the 25 tournaments I’m going to play this year, I’m probably going to suck, too.”
The Melbourne Park public turned against Azarenka in their 2013 semifinal when she took a 12-minute medical timeout – unusually long – that many of the fans perceived as gamesmanship. Azarenka has long insisted that she was truly in pain.
She said she took the criticism too heart, crying often in her hotel room before the final, and she was no crowd favorite as she eventually won the title against Li Na. Nor was she a crowd favorite last year when she was beaten in the quarterfinals by Agnieszka Radwanska.
But there were no boos on Tuesday in Hisense Arena. She and Stephens were both greeted with polite applause, and when her latest straight-set victory was complete, she finished off her postmatch interview with a salutation: “Thank you, mate.”
It will be intriguing to see how far she can go in Melbourne from here.