INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA -- Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka made a successful return to an event where she has had prolific success, as the two-time BNP Paribas Open champion notched a first-round win over Great Britain’s Heather Watson, 6-4, 6-2, in Indian Wells on Thursday night.
This was the former top-ranked player's first match since Wimbledon of last year. “I’m glad to be here, glad to be in the routine," Azarenka told the press afterwards. "It’s something familiar, but it’s been a while so it’s a little unfamiliar. I’m happy to be in my zone.”
“Probably the hardest thing to do was to lower my expectations today, and just to go out there and try to enjoy the moment, and, for once, be nice to yourself on the court," Azarenka continued. "Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re not doing what you think you can do. That was definitely a battle in my head to make that work."
"My focus was just to be out there and enjoy myself, and not to put too much pressure -- but of course I’ve done that in the match, and I wanted to push myself," Azarenka elaborated. "But just being out there was the most important thing."
The Belarusian, who won the BNP Paribas Open in 2012 and 2016, eased past the British No.2 in one hour and 43 minutes -- a match time inflated by a stunning 18-minute, 12-deuce game near the end of the encounter.
Watson was the last player Azarenka defeated before her extended period of time off the court, having beaten the Brit in the third round of Wimbledon just before her most recent match, a fourth-round loss at the All-England Club to Simona Halep. With Thursday’s win, Azarenka has extended her head-to-head record against Watson to six wins versus zero losses.
— WTA (@WTA) March 9, 2018
Watson had more winners than Azarenka, with 16 to the Belarusian's 12. But the Brit was let down by a whopping 38 unforced errors, and Azarenka was able to claim half of the points when Watson got her first serve into play.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Azarenka has now set up a highly intriguing matchup with reigning US Open champion and No.13 seed Sloane Stephens in the second round. The American is coming off a two-match run to the quarterfinals of the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presentado por HSBC, which were her first victories of the year.
Azarenka got off to a flyer of a start, breaking an error-prone Watson for a 2-0 lead, and then fending off two break points to hold for 3-0. In the next game, Watson came back from 0-40 down to hold and get on the board at 3-1, but the Brit was struggling to keep returns in play during the first few games.
Azarenka was wholly in control at this point as the unforced errors by Watson continued to pile up. The former World No.1 broke the Brit again to lead 5-1 and serve for the opening set. But out of nowhere, Azarenka started misfiring, and dropped serve at love to give Watson new life.
The British player took advantage, increasing her aggression and trying to put points away quickly. Watson held for 5-3, and then used a varied selection of shots to pressure Azarenka into a second consecutive break at love. Suddenly, the set was back on serve and the match had acquired an entirely new dimension.
But at crunch time, Watson wavered while Azarenka delivered. Serving at 4-5, Watson hit a double fault and a forehand error to fall behind 15-30, and then Azarenka played a point with outstanding depth of shot, ending the rally with a backhand winner down the line to bring up set point. A deflated Watson double faulted the set away.
— WTA (@WTA) March 9, 2018
It seemed like the second set would be a formality, as Watson's unforced errors came back with a vengeance at the start, while Azarenka was running every ball down and tempering her power with consistency and patience.
Azarenka broke Watson for a 2-0 lead for the second time in the evening, and after shaking off two double faults and a break point to hold for 3-0, the two-time major titlist was inches away from her sixth consecutive win over Watson. But Watson stayed the course, hitting purposeful, aggressive shots and remaining within striking distance.
The Brit got her shot to reclaim momentum when Azarenka faced a protracted service game at 4-2. In an outrageous 18-minute, 12-deuce battle, both players had myriad chances to take the pivotal game -- each player had seven game points, most of which went begging due to either divine shot selection or unfortunate miscues.
Finally, on the twelfth deuce, Azarenka blew open a rally with a tricky drop shot for a winner, and then, on her seventh game point, the excited Belarusian took the 5-2 lead when Watson pushed a backhand service return into the net.
Azarenka found positives and negatives in that marathon game. "I felt that I could have done a lot more in that game, and on the important moments, I did step up and serve well and play well, but there were moments when I was too tense and I was playing too short."
“Those are the things that, definitely, when you don’t play a lot, you don’t sometimes know how to do at the right moment, and I need to get that feeling back, for sure," she continued.
Watson did not capitulate despite seven squandered break points in the previous game. At 5-2, the Brit saved two match points and hit a daring putaway to reach game point, but more exceptional speed by Azarenka led to further unforced errors by Watson and a third match point. A Watson forehand miscue into the net closed out the hour-long second set, giving Azarenka her first victory in eight months.
"A week ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be here, but today I won my first match in however long, so I’ll take it," concluded Azarenka.