ROME, Italy - Victoria Azarenka needed two sets to ease past Zhang Shuai at the Internazionale BNL d’Italia, where she’s booked a second round clash against No.5 seed Elina Svitolina.
It’s wildcard Azarenka’s first victory in Rome since 2015, the year the former World No.1 ended her season after the French Open as she announced her pregnancy. Back in the Italian capital now as a mother, Azarenka got right back to her winning ways with a solid 6-2, 6-1 victory over Zhang.
“I think I played pretty solid from the beginning,” Azarenka said after the match. “I was quite consistent. It was not easy conditions, you know, it was cold and we had to wait to play our match.
“But I’m happy with my focus, I took control of some of the points early in the match and I kept the pressure on her.”
Azarenka’s reward will be a blockbuster clash against the two-time defending champion, Elina Svitolina. Azarenka leads the Ukranian 2-0 in the pair’s head-to-head record - but both of those matchups took place on hardcourts and happened back in 2015.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge,” Azarenka said of playing Svitolina. “It’s been a while since we played a match at a tournament. We actually practiced here together.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a tough battle. She plays amazing here, winning two times in a row. So it’s going to be fun, I think. We’ll also play at night tomorrow so hopefully we can get a good crowd and make things exciting.”
A runner-up here in 2013, Azarenka came into this year’s tournament playing some vintage tennis, but still suffering from fitness woes. She reached her first singles final since her maternity leave last month in Monterrey, but was forced to retire to Garbine Muguruza due to a left leg injury. And in Stuttgart, she retired in the quarterfinals due to a shoulder injury.
She was firing on all cylinders against Zhang at the Foro Italico on Monday, despite facing unusually heavy and cold conditions. Azarenka dominated in the first set, quickly opening with a double break to lead 4-1. She had all of the answers for everything Zhang threw her way, dictating play with her powerful forehand.
Zhang earned a break of her own at 4-2 as she tried to extend her stay in the set, but Azarenka reestablished her advantage a game later and served out the first set with confidence.
Azarenka continued to steamroll in the second set, opening with another early break to lead 2-0. From there, it was one-way traffic for the Belarusian, who reeled off the last four games in a row to claim the victory after an hour and eight minutes.
Azarenka struck 18 winners and kept her unforced error count contained to 11, outpacing Zhang’s 15 winners and 28 unforced errors. She stayed the aggressor throughout the match, and as a result she converted six of her eight break chances, while Zhang broke once on her only opportunity.