ISTANBUL, Turkey - There are no easy rounds at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships - Istanbul 2012 - they all talked about it beforehand, and Victoria Azarenka lived it first hand on Wednesday. Playing her first match of the tournament the World No.1 was pushed about as far as one could be pushed, battling Angelique Kerber for over three hours before finally winning.
The No.5-ranked Kerber was on her game from the start, moving out to an early 3-1 lead and, after Azarenka caught up, edging her in what turned out to be a near-historic tie-break, saving five set points - four with huge forehands - to claim it, 13-11. It was the equal-longest tie-break in the history of the tournament.
"Honestly, when I was up 6-2 in the tie-break, she played three great points, then I made a stupid mistake," Azarenka said of a missed backhand slice into the net. "I made a few too many unforced errors today, but it happens, and she was playing really well - she forced me to do those unforced errors."
Azarenka built a 4-2 lead in the second set. Kerber took three straight games to lead 5-4, and got to double match point with Azarenka falling behind 15-40 on her serve; but while some may have played it safe in that spot, Azarenka only seemed to increase the power - and like the crack of a whip she attacked.
"On the match points I just thought I had to go for it - she wasn't going to miss, and I didn't want to wait for her to make a mistake," Azarenka said. "I was so determined to make it happen. I wanted to take destiny into my hands - if I missed those shots, it was going to be up to me, not up to my opponent."
"Vika played unbelievable in those moments," Kerber said. "She played unbelievable on those match points. I really couldn't do anything."
Azarenka won that game, closed the set out in a much quicker tie-break and, though she got broken serving for the match at 5-3, broke Kerber to finish off a three-hour, six-minute, 67(11) 76(2) 64 epic in front of a mesmerized crowd.
"I was fighting so hard - at the beginning of the tournament it's quite hard to have a match like that!" Azarenka said. "But all the best players are here and you have to show your best tennis. I don't think I did that, but at least I showed my best fight. I'm glad I lived this experience and overcame the challenges today."
Though she said she didn't show her best tennis, she still had positive numbers against one of the most unbreakable players on the tour - a +5 differential of winners to unforced errors (45 to 40). Kerber finished at +6 (49-43).
Kerber fell to 0-7 lifetime against Top 2 players and Azarenka remains the only player in the elite eight she has never beaten - but she came pretty darn close.
"I gave it my best today, but Vika played too well in the important moments," Kerber said. "Of course I'm a little bit sad I lost this match but the quality was unbelievable - there's just one winner and one loser, and Vika won today.
"I was happy to be a part of this great match. The atmosphere was amazing."
Azarenka's second round robin match is Thursday against Serena Williams. The No.1 is 1-10 against the former No.1, but she's very motivated.
"I have to be ready for anything and give my all," Azarenka said. "It's the last push here. I'll recover tonight and keep as much energy as possible.
"The most important thing for me is to have the desire - and I have it."