ROME, Italy - Victoria Azarenka got the better of two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina in a three-set thriller, weathering multiple rain delays to advance to the third round at the 2019 Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
Azarenka, into Rome with a wildcard, had to come back from a set down and save a match point late in the third, but she completed the epic comeback to win 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 after two hours and 14 minutes on court.
“It was such a dramatic match - it was a lot of breaks and stuff with the rain, and that was quite difficult to deal with,” Azarenka admitted. “But I’m happy I was able to just block it out, play my game, survive the match point, and then pick it up from there to play great tennis.
“Overall it was a high quality match. I’m happy with my performance, and I’m happy to be through and I’ll try to get better in the tournament.”
The win puts an end to Svitolina’s hopes for a Roman hattrick as the Ukrainian - who was struggling with knee injury earlier in the season - was seeking to become the first woman to win Rome three consecutive times since Conchita Martinez in 1993-1996.
Instead, it’s Azarenka who improves in her head-to-head against Svitolina, amassing a perfect 3-0 record.
But it was anything but smooth sailing for Azarenka as she took to the Foro Italico against Svitolina. Svitolina edged through to claim a tightly-contested opening set, but found herself struggling to find any rhythm as rain interrupted the second set multiple times.
The pair traded breaks to start the first set, with Svitolina earning the first lead at 3-1 and Azarenka breaking back to make it 3-2, leveling the score a game later. The two wrestled for momentum in the games that followed, splitting five break chances in the next two games - but neither able to capitalize.
Finally it was Azarenka who blinked, unforced errors creeping up at a crucial moment as Svitolina broke once more in the final game to take the set 6-4.
That’s when the rain, which had been threatening all day, finally came down in the Italian capital. The players went off court after Azarenka recorded an early break for a 1-0 lead - aided by two Svitolina double faults.
Upon resumption a few minutes later, Svitolina broke straight back with confidence, but Azarenka quickly established her lead. The Belarusian continued to fire winners past Svitolina, who struggled to match her opponent’s rhythm as Azarenka extended her lead to 4-1.
Another, lengthier, rain delay had the players waiting in the locker room for over an hour. Back on court at just past 10:30 pm, Azarenka picked up where she left off and made it five games in a row to take the second set 6-1.
But the match had a few more twists and turns in it as Svitolina rallied to start the third with a double break, 3-0 lead. Svitolina’s lone service hold at 2-0 would make the difference, leaving her in the lead after a rollercoaster series of six straight breaks of serve that followed.
Azarenka raised her level as the third set unfolded, her powerful groundstrokes firing and keeping Svitolina on the run. Svitolina had chances to seal the match, holding a match point at 5-2 and serving for it at 5-3, but both times Azarenka slammed the door shut and stayed in the contest. She reeled off five games in a row to complete the turnaround from 3-5 to 7-5, claiming victory after two hours and 14 minutes.
“Right now I’m looking at the overall big picture and trying to improve every aspect of my game,” Azarenka said.
“Obviously, movement is very important on clay court, and I feel like I’m getting better and more accustomed to clay. Especially this year, I feel a lot more at ease on clay. I’m happy with that.”
Into the third round for the sixth time in her career, Azarenka, the 2013 finalist, now awaits the winner in tomorrow’s match between Danielle Collins and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.
“I played Collins this year, in Acapulco actually,” Azarenka recalled. “It’ll be interesting to play her on clay - we’ve never played there. And I played Garbine in Monterrey, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish the match.
“So either match will be really challenging for me, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”