PARIS, France - After a few struggles in the early rounds, Victoria Azarenka really picked up her level at Roland Garros on Monday afternoon, completely breaking away from 3-all in the first set to beat Francesca Schiavone in straight sets, 63 60, and move smoothly through to the quarterfinals.
The first six games of the match couldn't have been closer, with Schiavone - a former champion at Roland Garros - diffusing Azarenka's power with her unique variety of angles, spins and net rushing. It looked like it was going to be a tight one from there - until one of the players totally broke away.
"Francesca is such a tough opponent," Azarenka said. "It's always difficult to get used to her game, too. She can do anything. And I wasn't very accurate at the beginning, either. So it probably took me a little bit of time, but I just tried to stay focused, anticipate better and take my opportunities more."
With fierce down-the-lines and glamorous swinging volleys sprinkled in, the No.3-seeded Azarenka stormed through the next nine games in a row to run away with it against the unseeded Italian.
"I think it was my most composed and consistent match of the tournament so far," Azarenka said. "The beginning was back and forth, but there was kind of a build-up to later on that I was doing the right thing. Later in the match I felt I could anticipate a little more and really go for my shots more.
"It was definitely a very good challenge for me to play against a great player like Francesca, especially knowing how well she's done here in the past. I'm very pleased with the way I was playing today.
"But I always take it one match at a time. The next match will having nothing to do with today."
Azarenka is now in her third French Open quarterfinal, having also gone this far in 2009 (losing to Dinara Safina) and 2011 (losing to Li Na). This is the only major she hasn't made the semifinals of.
"There's no doubt it's always been the most challenging Grand Slam for me, but I feel like I'm finally understanding what I need to do to improve on clay," Azarenka said. "I feel it's a process - but I'm on the right way. That's the most important thing for me, to take it step by step, better and better, and I hope I've been playing better than before, because otherwise that would mean it's a step back.
"It's not about your game you really have to adjust - it's about your movement. It's sliding. You don't have that much stability. You can't just think about how you move left to right, but how you come to the ball with small steps. So you have to consider these little and big adjustments at the same time.
"I've never been past the quarterfinals here; it's a great opportunity to take that step."
Next up for Azarenka is No.12 seed Maria Kirilenko, who beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands a little later in the day, 75 64. Azarenka leads Kirilenko in their head-to-head, 3-2, winning their last three.
"I think the last time we played was at the Olympics," Azarenka said. "She's definitely improved a lot over the last couple years. She's a very motivated player, and a good friend of mine, also."