TOKYO, Japan - Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka held her ground to advance past local wildcard Kurumi Nara, 6-4, 7-5, to end the night session at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.
"It was a little bit tougher than it should have been, because I feel like I had so many opportunities to close the match earlier," she said during the on-court interview. "But she's a great fighter, who fought hard, and put a lot of balls back. A win is a win, so I'm happy for that."
Twice a semifinalist in Tokyo, Azarenka gritted through a tense second set - one that came down to an epic eleventh game - to outlast the former World No.32 after one hour and 52 minutes on the Main Arena.
"I don't think I played really well," Azarenka later admitted after the match. "She's not an easy opponent, and playing against a home crowd is never easy either. I made things more difficult for myself, but I'll try to build on this."
The Belarusian was playing her first tournament of the Asian Swing, having lost in the third round of the US Open to defending champion Sloane Stephens. Enjoying a glittering start against Nara, Azarenka raced out to a 5-2 lead in the opening set, breaking serve twice along the way.
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"I think I need time off to train for next season. It's been a tough year, so my preparation hasn't been the best because I didn't have the weeks I really wanted to put in. We'll be ready for next year, for sure."
Nara soon dug into the match, breaking back and holding to love to get within a point of leveling the set, only for Azarenka to turn the tables hold off her fellow wildcard.
Still, the 25-year-old kept up that sudden momentum in the second set, edging ahead 3-1 after an early exchange of breaks. Azarenka rolled through four of the next five games to hold a match point, but Nara saved it with a searing backhand passing shot.
Breaking back to even proceedings, Azarenka and Nara conspired to play a nine minute game at 5-5, one that featured five deuces and four break points before the former World No.1 secured the break and held two more match points.
Nara would save both - one with a forehand winner - and engineered a break point, which Azarenka erased with a swing volley winner of her own.
On her fourth match point, Azarenka put away a backhand winner to book a second round meeting with Aussie Ashleigh Barty, who beat fellow US Open women's doubles winner CoCo Vandeweghe in three grueling sets to start the day.
"I've never played against her but we practiced together recently. She's a great player, very talented, and she can do a lot on court. I think this surface may suit her to do a lot of things with the ball, so it'll be challenging."
In all, she struck 25 winners to 41 unforced errors and converted six of 21 break point opportunities; Nara nonetheless impressed the home crowd with 20 winners but 38 unforced errors and just four service breaks ultimately hindered her upset bid.