LONDON, Great Britain - Victoria Azarenka produced the best performance to date of her comeback from maternity leave to oust No.15 seed Elena Vesnina in the second round of Wimbledon 6-3, 6-3 in one hour and 38 minutes.
In seven meetings spread over the past 10 years, the 27-year-old had only once lost more than four games in a set against her Russian opponent before today - and she wasn't about to let that number increase today, smothering last year's semifinalist with depth and razor-sharp anticipation. "I think I played really clean from the baseline today," Azarenka said afterwards. "I could have played a little better on the return, but she also served really well. But overall, I felt like I played really good on the important moments, which gave me opportunities to win comfortably today."
Vesnina started positively: the three-time doubles Slam champion found particular success at the net, winning seven of eight points in the forecourt in the first set. Azarenka has been reading her patterns superbly for the past decade, though, and more often than not was able to counter Vesnina's attempts to open up the court and respond with her own weaponry.
The World No.683, playing only her fourth match since giving birth to son Leo in January, had looked some way off her peak form both in reaching the second round of the Mallorca Open a fortnight ago and in her first-round win over Catherine Bellis. But today, Azarenka was precise and powerful all round. Her serve was particularly formidable: an unreturnable delivery saved a break point in the third game of the match, and that was to be Vesnina's first and final chance on the Azarenka delivery as she sent down eight aces, often due to accurate placement rather than raw pace.
Along with an unshakeable forehand, it was a solid foundation for Azarenka as she broke her 30-year-old rival once in the first set and twice in the second. The Belarusian also produced moments of glorious improvisation, though: a pinpoint lob en route to closing out the first set, a chipped forehand return winner early in the second set and a delightful volley exchange in the last game of the match.Neither a brief interlude in the first set, when a spectator was taken ill, nor a medical time-out for Vesnina while trailing 2-4 in the second set during which Azarenka pressganged a ballgirl into service as a hitting partner, halted the former World No.1's momentum - and though the Russian fought two match points off with tenacious play, a third double fault ended her Wimbledon hopes on the third.
Azarenka, back in the third round of a Slam for the first time since the Australian Open last year, will face local heroine Heather Watson there - against whom she holds a 5-0 head-to-head lead in which she has never lost more than four games in a set. Not that she's underestimating the Briton. "I think she's a great player. She definitely is going to be a crowd favorite," observed Azarenka. "I think she played really well last week in Eastbourne. It looks like she feels really comfortable coming into this match."
The Belarusian also stated afterwards that motherhood has given her a new sense of purpose on court. "Completely different," she said firmly when asked to compare previous comebacks from injury to her return this year. "It's really different, because before, it was something that, you know, was a sad situation to be injured. For me this time it's a happy thing that I came back and took a conscious decision to be away, and it's more meaning. A little bit more outside of the tennis court for me to be able still to do what I love to do."
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