NEW YORK, NY, USA -- Wild card Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a two-time finalist at the US Open, notched her first win at the tournament since the fourth round in 2015 by overcoming Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova, 6-3, 7-5, in the first round of the 2018 event.
"I think I played pretty well," Azarenka said during her post-match press conference. "I played aggressive. I played much more confident I think than the previous matches. Most important, I had fun. I'm very happy to be in New York. I haven't been here in three years, so I'm very happy to be here."
Fomer World No.1 Azarenka, who lost in the 2012 and 2013 finals to Serena Williams, had not played in New York since giving birth to her son Leo in 2016, but she was able to outdo rising 20-year-old Kuzmova, the World No.56, in an hour and a half.
"[Kuzmova] played very well," Azarenka continued. "She hit the ball really hard. Her serve is a huge weapon. I mean, she was acing me every game, which doesn't usually happen. So I was trying to get those games and put as much pressure on her."
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, had 10 fewer winners than her opponent (22 to 32 for Kuzmova), but she kept her unforced errors under control, with only 12, while Kuzmova was undone by 28 miscues. Azarenka got 73 percent of her first serves in, and won 83 percent of those points to continually stay just ahead of Kuzmova during the tilt.
Azarenka moves into the second round, where she will face No.25 seed Daria Gavrilova of Australia. Gavrilova dispatched Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, 6-0, 6-0, earlier on Monday.
"I think [Gavrilova's] a very interesting player because she's a little bit unorthodox," Azarenka mused. "You don't really know what's coming. She has an interesting technique, a lot of head swing and stuff. Where is she going to go? It's hard to read."
"I think she's really cool and funny and nice, energetic," Azarenka went on, regarding Gavrilova. "For me, it will be interesting to play her. I think I'm at the stage where I don't really right now pay attention so much who I play against, it's more about how I'm going to feel and how I'm going to play. I think that's better for me at the moment."
Azarenka was in danger at 2-2 in the first set after Kuzmova crushed a backhand winner down the line to reach break point. But the Belarusian used stellar defense to frustrate Kuzmova into a forehand error and reach deuce, then used a solid forehand-and-serve combination to garner the hold for 3-2.
That fightback paid dividends in the following game when Azarenka claimed a break, as Kuzmova squandered a game point and hit three unforced errors to cede the pivotal game to the two-time US Open finalist.
Kuzmova continued to press Azarenka on serve. The Slovak slammed a return winner to reach another break point at 4-2, but again, Azarenka used her experience to withstand the aggressive play of Kuzmova and held for 5-2.
Azarenka then fell behind 0-30 while serving for the first set at 5-3, but hit an overhead winner, a winning crosscourt forehand, and an unreturned serve to move directly to set point. There, a quick-thinking forehand passing shot zipped past Kuzmova, giving Azarenka the one-set lead.
In the second set, Kuzmova showed off the solid forehand and fighting spirit which have seen her surge roughly 80 spots in the rankings since the start of the season, putting her on the cusp of the Top 50. The Slovak saved a break point at 3-2 with a gorgeous forehand pass, and she continued to go toe-to-toe with the two-time Grand Slam champion en route to 5-5.
But finally, in that game, Azarenka obtained the crucial break, taking advantage of errors by the young Slovak to reach double break point, and then crushing a backhand pass of her own, down the line, for a clean winner to break and lead 6-5. An easy hold in the following game was all it took for Azarenka to take the hard-fought set, and, in turn, the first-round victory.