The most tantalising first-round clash in the Adelaide International draw saw Victoria Azarenka take revenge on No.4 seed Paula Badosa with a 6-3, 6-2 win in 1 hour and 17 minutes.
Azarenka's last match of 2021 had been a heartbreaking 7-6(5), 2-6, 7-6(2) loss to Badosa in the Indian Wells final. That had been a 3-hour, 4-minute spectacular, the longest and arguably highest-quality title match of the season; Azarenka had been unable to serve it out, and victory rocketed Badosa into her WTA Finals debut.
Such had been the mutual respect between the pair, who are also playing doubles together this week, that they joked on social media about a rematch in 2022.
"It came back in my face right away," said Azarenka after winning in Adelaide.
Rematch next year? 😂 https://t.co/Xll0J58SW9— victoria azarenka (@vika7) October 18, 2021
The former World No.1 also said that she had overcome suboptimal preparation in the off-season.
"Honestly, it's been the most chaotic pre-season I've ever had. I was actually really nervous before the tournament, I felt really unprepared. For me to come out here and produce this type of tennis really makes me proud of the competitor I am."
Turning point: The first six games of the match picked up where the pair had left off in Indian Wells: high-octane, bruising exchanges that saw both players battling for baseline supremacy. Badosa twice went up a break, and twice Azarenka pegged her back.
Badosa combined her heavy striking with stellar footspeed, making several ridiculous retrievals during the match, but it was Azarenka's wider repertoire that swung the momentum in her favour. With Badosa serving at 3-2, Azarenka came up with a pair of brilliant volley winners, including one as the Spaniard held a point to lead 4-2.
Instead, Azarenka clubbed a pair of booming backhands to break for 3-3 - the start of a four-game winning streak that saw her pull away and start to dominate. The Belarusian broke again for 5-3, and sealed her third set point with a drive volley.
In the second set, she went from strength to strength, breaking for 2-1 with a marvellous lob and for 5-2 with another classy volley. Raising her first serve percentage from 65% to 77%, Azarenka did not face a break point herself in the second set and converted her first match point as a Badosa backhand found the net.
By the numbers: Azarenka tallied both more winners (24 to Badosa's 20) and fewer unforced errors (14 to 18). However, a key stat would be Badosa's four double faults, all of which came across three games in the first set. She would outweigh them with five aces over the match as a whole, but the openings they gave Azarenka in those games were significant in terms of Badosa being unable to hold her lead.
In Azarenka's words: "I wasn't expecting to play the way I played today," she said in the on-court interview. "I felt really focused, one point at a time from the beginning of the match.
"It's very easy to find some things you still want to work on, I'm a perfectionist on the court, but for the first match I knew I had a really, really tough opponent, so I was really prepared and I'm glad the way I started the year. Whatever I was working on paid off."
What's next for Azarenka: The two-time Australian Open champion will continue her bid for a seventh title on Australian soil against wildcard Priscilla Hon, who pulled off a first-round upset over Petra Kvitova on Monday.