No.15 seed Victoria Azarenka overcame Tamara Zidansek 3-6, 6-1, 6-3 in 2 hours and 20 minutes to return to the Mutua Madrid Open Round of 16 for the first time since 2016.
Azarenka, a two-time runner-up in 2011 and 2012, is playing her first tournament since retiring against Linda Fruhvirtova in the third round of Miami due to personal reasons. The result marked the first time the 32-year-old had posted consecutive victories since the Australian Open.
Azarenka had lost to Zidansek 6-2, 6-2 in their only previous meeting, in the first round of Monterrey 2020. But after dropping a third straight set to the Slovenian, the former World No.1 raised her level to turn the match around in emphatic fashion.
Two-time major champion Azarenka will next face either Amanda Anisimova or qualifier Petra Martic in a bid to reach her first Madrid quarterfinal since 2012.
Turning point: When Azarenka eventually seized the momentum, she did so emphatically. From 1-1 in the second set, she reeled off nine straight games, including a run of 16 straight points that took her from 2-1 to set point.
But this was down to the cumulative effect of gradually working her way into the match rather than a single shot. Indeed, the turnaround occurred just after Zidansek had saved four break points to hold for 1-1, then pulled off the shot of the match with a no-look dropshot.
The Roland Garros semifinalist had raced out of the blocks, firing a series of winners as she committed to taking the ball on early and aggressively and leaping out to 4-0. But once Azarenka found her rhythm on return and from the baseline, she made Zidansek work hard to hold on to the lead. This paid off as the World No.24's groundstrokes fell shorter and became more passive through the second set.
Trailing 5-1 in the third set, Zidansek essayed a valiant comeback attempt, stealing a point via remarkable defence en route to breaking Azarenka back. But it was too little, too late, and punishing returns saw Azarenka over the line in the next game.
By the numbers: Zidansek tallied more winners, 28 to Azarenka's 22, and fewer unforced errors, 38 to 40. But she paid the price for diminishing first serve efficacy, winning 43% of the points behind it in the second set and 53% in the third compared to 73% in the first. Seven double faults were also an issue.
Azarenka was also beset by eight double faults, and only converted six of 18 break point chances. But her first serve efficacy rose as the match went on: after winning 58% of the points behind it in the first set, that number rose to 88% in the second set and 63% in the third.
In Azarenka's words: "I feel she started really, really well. The longer the match went on the better I was playing and the more comfortable I felt. I think my attitude was really good today to try and find solutions and go for my shots, take control in my own hands. I don't have a lot of matches under my belt so those type of things are really important."
Bouzkova, Alexandrova set last-16 clash
Marie Bouzkova and Ekaterina Alexandrova both reached the third round of Madrid for the first time, and will face off in a last-16 tilt between unseeded players.
In an all-qualifier matchup, Bouzkova saved one match point before overcoming Dayana Yastremska 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-1 in 2 hours and 25 minutes.
Yastremska served for the win at 6-5 in the second set, but missed a putative forehand winner by inches on match point. Bouzkova, who repeatedly stole unlikely points through stellar retrieving and counterpunching, took firm control in the decider.
Alexandrova, who had not won consecutive matches in 2022 until reaching the Charleston semifinals, came from a break down in the second set to beat Nuria Parrizas Diaz 6-4, 7-5. Previously known for her indoor and fast-court prowess, Alexandrova is now 7-2 on clay this season compared to 4-6 elsewhere.