PARIS, France -- Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus notched her first Roland Garros victory since 2015 by overcoming 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, 6-4, 7-6(5), in the opening round on Tuesday.
"[Ostapenko is] one of the players that you never know what's coming, and she doesn't really give a lot of rhythm," Azarenka said in her post-match press conference. "So for the first round, that was obviously, for me, something very dangerous because it's important to get into the rhythm, into the tournament. And with a player like that, you need to find a way to win, and I felt that today that's what it was."
Azarenka reached the semifinals in Paris in 2013 for her best tournament showing, but her last match-win at the event came in the second round four years ago, before falling to Serena Williams in the third round that year. Since then, Azarenka retired with injury in the first round in 2016, missed the 2017 edition, and lost to Katerina Siniakova in last year's opener.
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The Belarusian, though, was able to pick up a win after withstanding the breakneck power of Ostapenko in their first-ever meeting, after an hour and 45 minutes of play. Ostapenko famously raced to the 2017 trophy as an unseeded player, but has now fallen in the first round twice since then.
World No.43 Azarenka eked out the win with seven breaks out of 14 break points, and while she was out-winnered by World No.39 Ostapenko to the tune of 33 to 12, the Latvian came undone via 60 unforced errors during the tilt, including 17 double faults.
"I felt like the momentum kept shifting, especially in the first set with the breaks of serves," said Azarenka. "And we are both really good returners, and I couldn't really find my rhythm on serve in the beginning, so there was a lot of shifts of those. But at the end of the second set, I felt I played really strong."
"I think any win at the beginning gives you a little bit boost of confidence for sure," Azarenka stated. "It's my first [Roland Garros] win in quite a while, so obviously before the match I had some nerves, and I think that also showed a little bit during the game. But I'm very happy to kind of step over that barrier and be able to play in my next round."
Azarenka's draw will stay tricky, as she will face either World No.1 Naomi Osaka or clay-court maven Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the second round.
The match started inauspiciously, with Azarenka firing two straight double faults in the first two points en route to dropping serve in the first game. But Ostapenko failed to consolidate, hitting three double faults in the next game to get broken back straight away. This presaged a set where each player was extremely vulnerable on serve, and their opponent was regularly happy to take advantage.
Ostapenko showed flashes of the form which brought her to the 2017 title, often crushing return winners with ease. The Latvian, however, would consistently struggle on serve; four times Ostapenko went up a break in the set, only to see Azarenka methodically pull herself back level as the first eight games of the clash went against serve.
Finally, it was Azarenka who first stayed solid on serve, holding for 5-4 with an ace and breaking the spell of service breaks. Ostapenko hit one screaming backhand winner down the line in the next game, but followed that with two double faults, giving Azarenka double set point. Ostapenko’s 27th unforced error of the set allowed the Belarusian to convert her first chance.
At last, Ostapenko held her serve in the second game of the second set, and the Latvian took some momentum from that breakthrough, clinching the first break of the set in the next game en route to a 3-1 lead. However, the errors crept back into the Latvian’s game at 4-3, and she slammed two double faults plus a backhand miscue to let Azarenka level the set at 4-4.
Azarenka then held two match points at 5-4, but Ostapenko pulled out requisite grit when necessary to grind out a hold for 5-5. That nearly proved massive when Ostapenko took Azarenka's service after a 13-minute game, taking a 6-5 lead on her third break point of that protracted tussle and giving the former champion a chance to serve out the second set.
But after leading 30-0, Ostapenko collapsed into four straight errors, including a 16th double fault, to lose serve. The players moved into the tiebreak, which stayed close until Azarenka used dominant, deep forehands to reach 6-4, garnering two more match points. One point later, Ostapenko hit a backhand error into the net, ceding the hard-fought win to Azarenka.