NEW YORK, NY, USA - Former champion Victoria Azarenka started her campaign at the Western & Southern Open with an emphatic 6-2, 6-3 victory over No.15 seed Donna Vekic, needing just over an hour to seal her first victory of 2020.
Prior to the tour's shutdown, the two-time Australian Open champion lost her opening match in Acapulco to Tamara Zidansek, and was beaten last week in the opening round of the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics by Venus Williams, but kicked off her third tournament of 2020 with a 71-minute win over the World No.24.
The victory is Azarenka's best in terms of ranking since last year's Western & Southern Open, where she beat then-World No.12 Belinda Bencic via a first-round retirement in which Azarenka was leading 6-4, 1-0. It is the Belarusian's first victory in a completed match over a Top 30 player since last May in Rome, where she dethroned two-time champion Elina Svitolina.
"I'm very happy honestly to win a match. It's been like a year or so," Azarenka told reporters after the match. "I haven't played a lot, but it's still like finally to get over that mid-hump a little bit and to be able to close out the match and stay strong throughout the match was super important to me.
"I didn't really think about Lexington that much today. It was my kind of first tournament back, and, you know, it wasn't in my favor, but I felt like towards the end I was getting into the rhythm there. Today I started from what I was working on there and try and transition that today and start to play better. It's just when you play against Venus Williams and you finally start playing at 6-3, 4-0, it's a little too late.
"I was unfortunate there... but in that match, I was able to kind of find something that would work for me maybe later on, which was positive, which I feel is also a bit of a personal growth for me, and build on from that.
"Today was a day that really showed that what I have been working on, can put it in match situation, and I just want to continue to keep going this way."
During last year's summer hard court season, Vekic earned two victories over the former World No.1 at two events - in San Jose and at the Western & Southern Open's traditional home in Cincinnati - but never found the same level opposite what was largely a vintage Azarenka in their third overall encounter.
"It's difficult to kind of go back into last year's [matches]... I was aware of what she does on the court well, and I feel like a couple of previous meetings, especially in San Jose when we played, I had a lot of opportunities, but I kind of let them go and she stayed really strong. She played really well, but today I felt like I started well and I kept my foot on the gas, " Azarenka recalled.
"I served a lot better today. I feel like I was consistent with putting a lot of pressure. I felt that my movement was solid today, as well. Last year was a different story for me personally, as well. I think the biggest difference is like I really enjoy myself on the court, which haven't happened in such a long time."
The two players posted nearly inverse stat sheets for the match, as Azarenka recorded 21 winners to 14 unforced errors, and served seven aces.
Breaking serve five times, Azarenka took advantage of seven double faults from the Croatian No.2, who also hit 14 winners to 20 unforced.
Up next, Azarenka will face the winner of the first-round match between former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, a wildcard in the draw, or former Top 5 player Caroline Garcia.