Two former World No.1s kicked off second-round action on Day 3 of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, with mixed fortunes. No.14 seed Victoria Azarenka ended Sloane Stephens' six-match winning streak 6-4, 6-3, but qualifier Anna Bondar beat No.13 Karolina Pliskova 7-6(5), 6-2 for her first Top 20 win.
Despite the score line, Azarenka's 1-hour, 42-minute victory was far from straightforward. The 2013 finalist trailed by a break twice in the first set and once in the second; there were 10 breaks of serve in total. Both players had to adjust to each other's shifting tactics, mixing up high balls, drop shots and all-out power as they sought to gain the upper hand.
Ultimately, it was Azarenka who was more aggressive overall. She struck 25 groundstroke winners compared to Stephens' 13, with her ability to open up the court with her backhand proving crucial. The 33-year-old Azarenka also navigated the most tense passages of play well. Having come through five deuces to break for 4-2 in the second set, she then came out on the wrong end of another tussle to drop serve after seven deuces.
Nonetheless, Azarenka was able to redouble her efforts to win the final two games of the match and take a 5-4 lead in her overall head-to-head against Stephens. After losing four straight matches to the American in 2018 and 2019, Azarenka has now won both of their meetings this year following her second-round victory in Charleston. No.36-ranked Stephens had been on a six-match winning streak -- her longest since 2018 -- after winning last week's WTA 125 in Saint-Malo.
Azarenka will next face either No.19 seed Madison Keys or qualifier Magdalena Frech.
Bondar turns season around with career-best win
Despite cracking the Top 50 in July last year, Bondar had begun to lose ground in 2023. The 25-year-old Hungarian came into Rome on an eight-match losing streak at WTA and ITF level, with her only wins in this period coming during Billie Jean King Cup action, and her ranking has slid to No.93.
But Bondar snapped that streak by qualifying here -- and has now reached the third round at WTA 1000 level or above for the first time after defeating Pliskova. Her drop shot proved to be the contest's key stroke, and her delicate touch with it repeatedly outfoxed the 2019 champion.
After edging a tight opening set, Bondar raced away with the second, winning 16 of the first 21 points to take a quick 4-0 lead -- one that proved insurmountable for the Czech player. Bondar's next test will be either No.22 seed Zheng Qinwen or 2008 finalist Alizé Cornet.