NEW YORK, NY, USA - Former champion Victoria Azarenka is back into the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open for the first time since her 2013 title run after unraveling Ons Jabeur in straight sets.
Both players had plenty of chances to claim the roller coaster opening set, splitting nine set points between them as the two-time Grand Slam champion and the Tunisian trailblazer squared off. But it was Azarenka who emerged victorious, edging through 7-6(9), 6-2 in an hour and 44 minutes to reach the semifinals.
“I think what was challenging today was that I was playing against her for the first time,” Azarenka said of Jabeur. “Other opponents I have played before, so it was a little bit more familiar.
“The beginning was a little bit tough for me. I felt like I was getting bullets out of my behind for a few times, and then I kind of got into the ball. I was surprised but in a good way by her pace. She's very, very talented. I have obviously seen her play, but, you know, standing on the other side was different.
“So I definitely admire her talent, and it was surprising in a good way. I mean, in a bad way for me, but I'm saying it with a compliment.”
Coming into the Western & Southern Open, Azarenka was still searching for her first victory of the season after missing the first three months of the season due to personal reasons and the next five as a result of the tour’s pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her only tournaments of the season in Monterrey and Lexington ended in straight sets, opening round defeats, and the Belarusian had not won a match since 2019 Cincinnati.
Azarenka ended that streak in style, stunning the No.15 seed Donna Vekic in straight sets in her first match at the Western & Southern Open, and then fighting past Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet en route her first WTA semifinal since April 2019.
But to get there, Azarenka had to battle past one of the most in-form players of 2020, Jabeur, in the quarterfinals. Jabeur kicked off her season in historic fashion, becoming the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, backed it up during the Middle East swing with her first quarterfinal in Doha and then picked up where she left off with another quarterfinal run in Lexington.
Jabeur showed why she’s claimed four Top 20 victories so far this year, employing her crafty game to great success as she started the match with an early break for a 2-0 lead against Azarenka. She had a point to go up 3-0, but Azarenka wrestled the momentum away as she leveled for 2-2.
The gusty conditions in New York seemed to wreak havoc with Jabeur’s finely-tuned game, and Azarenka found her way back from a break down two more times throughout the topsy-turvy set - saving two set points along the way as she broke Jabeur at 5-4.
Azarenka let three set points of her own slip away as the pair stayed locked in battle through the first-set tiebreak as Jabeur turned around a 3-6 deficit to make it 6-6. There was nothing to separate them as three more set points came and went - two for Jabeur at 7-6 and 8-7, and another for Azarenka at 9-8 - but it was the Belarusian who finally pulled away, converting her fifth set point to claim the set 7-6(9) after more than 70 minutes.
“I feel like in the closer moments I played well,” Azarenka said of saving four set points. “Definitely the set points I saved pretty big in the first set, and the other ones I went for some balls. When there are tough moments, you either gotta go for it or you're going to wait for a mistake.
“In my case, I felt that I was going to try and go for my shots, and sometimes it doesn't happen. So my reaction was to keep trying, keep trying, and then it's going to work.”
In pictures: The story of the 2020 Western & Southern Open
With a hard-fought set under her belt, Azarenka seemed to grow in confidence as the match continued to unfold and she opened the second set with an early break to lead 2-0. The former champion rolled to another break as she extended her lead and closed out the match to win 7-6(9), 6-2.
Yet to drop a set in New York, Azarenka awaits the winner between No.8 seed Johanna Konta and No.13 Maria Sakkari in the next round.