ROME, Italy -- In a battle between former World No.1 players and Grand Slam champions, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus outlasted Venus Williams of the United States, 7-6(7), 6-2, to become the final first-round winner of the 2020 Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
World No.14 Azarenka continued her resurgent summer after her tremendous run at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, where she won the Western & Southern Open and reached the US Open final, with a victory over 1999 Rome champion Williams in just over two hours.
"Different surface was definitely challenging, but I feel like I adapted very well," Azarenka said, in her post-match press conference. "I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, I knew I wasn’t going to play a perfect game today, but it was all about trying to find the right intention of what to do today. I think it worked out okay."
"I felt that this was a great match for me to figure it out, the first match on clay," Azarenka added. "Venus played a really good match, it was good to see her also adapting to clay, changing and trying different shots. So, I’m pretty happy."
2013 Rome finalist Azarenka had fallen to Williams in their most recent meeting, which came in Lexington last month -- the match that came directly before Azarenka started an 11-match winning streak at the Western & Southern Open, which was only ended by Naomi Osaka in the US Open final.
Williams, in fact, held a 6-2 head-to-head lead coming into Wednesday’s tilt, but the Belarusian was able to clinch the win in two long sets. Azarenka had 22 winners to 18 unforced errors, and notched six service breaks out of 14 break points on the day.
"I feel like I started pretty well, I felt like [Williams] was trying to be really aggressive and changing up some pace," said Azarenka. "She was getting in a better rhythm and I needed to find my game, and I thought that the longer I played, the better I felt the rhythm."
In the second round, Azarenka will have to face another Grand Slam champion: No.3 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States, who claimed the Australian Open title earlier this season. Kenin won a tough three-setter in her only previous encounter with Azarenka, which came in the Acapulco quarterfinals last season.
"It’s going to be an interesting match because Sonya’s been my doubles partner for the last two tournaments," said Azarenka. "We know each other quite well."
"She’s a great player, she’s obviously been playing exceptional this year," the two-time Grand Slam champion continued. "I feel like I’m playing all these players I’ve lost to before, so I’m kind of given an opportunity to redeem myself!"
Despite the quick change of surface after Saturday’s US Open final, Azarenka was still able to grit through a nine-minute game to break Williams for 2-0, then consolidated at love, with an ace on game point, for an early 3-0 lead. Williams quickly countered, pulling back on serve for 3-2, then leveling the set at three games apiece with an ace of her own.
The Belarusian then reclaimed her break lead, taking Williams’s service at love with penetrating returning to move ahead 5-3 and serve for the set. The American, though, fought back again: after breaking for 5-4, Williams saved a set point with a big serve down the T en route to a hold for 5-5.
Williams then captured her first lead of the day, slamming a backhand winner down the line to break Azarenka, and garnering her chance to serve for the opener at 6-5. However, Azarenka maneuvered her way to double break point in that game, and Williams double faulted on the second of those points to drop serve and queue up a tiebreak.
In the breaker, Azarenka powered back-to-back winners square on the baseline to crack open a 5-2 lead. Williams, though, surged back once more, zipping to 5-5, then earning her first set point at 6-5 after forcing an error long from the Belarusian.
Azarenka, though, erased that chance, using a deep forehand to force a miscue from Williams and reach 6-6. After withstanding a second set point at 7-6, Williams misfired on a rally forehand to give Azarenka her third set point at 8-7. That time, the Belarusian was able to wrap up the one-set lead, after a Williams forehand flew just barely long.
In the first game of the second set, Williams got ahead 40-15 before Azarenka chipped away at that lead, and was eventually rewarded with a break after the American double faulted to cede the game. The Belarusian slid to 4-1 as she approached victory over Williams, who had hoisted the Rome trophy as champion 21 years ago.
A sterling Williams return helped her grasp one break back and pull to 4-2, but the American found herself in a tussle to hold serve in the next game, which lasted over 14 minutes. Eventually, on her fifth break point, Azarenka converted her opportunity, reclaiming her double-break lead for 5-2.
Serving for the match, a double fault put Azarenka behind 0-30, giving Williams a chance to eke her way back into the contest. However, three missed backhands by the American on the next three points allowed Azarenka to claim her first match point. There, a long forehand by Williams sealed a second-round spot for the Belarusian.