LONDON, Great Britian - Victoria Azarenka broke home hearts on Friday at Wimbledon, as shre rallied from a set down to defeat wildcard Heather Watson and return to the second week at the All-England Club, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
The two-time semifinalist returns to the second week for the fourth time in her career in just her second tournament of the season, and will put a spotless record on the line on manic Monday: she has never lost a fourth round match on the London lawns (4-0).
"I'm happy to be here. I'm still very ambitious and focused. I'm not on a Cloud 9 for making it to the second week, but I do appreciate everything that I have been able to achieve right now, and I don't take anything for granted," Azarenka said. "I'm still in the tournament. I can't be too happy. I'm never really satisfied until it's done.
"I feel like in the second set I stepped up a little bit more. Throughout the match, I felt that there were a little bit too many up-and-downs, but in the important moments I felt like I played really well and I was doing the right thing in the important moment, which is I guess the positive, so I guess I have to keep doing the right things throughout the whole match."
The two players toiled for over two hours on Centre Court, as Watson came out of the blocks firing - looking to thrill the home crowd and make the second week for the first time on home soil.
The Brit zoned off the ground through the first nine games - striking 12 winners to just four unforced errors - and she broke the Azarenka serve twice to claim her first set in their fifth career meeting.
Prior to Friday's match on Centre Court, Watson had only once claimed four games in a set against Azarenka, but claiming the first three games helped her cause as she built a one-set lead.
"I think she started to play well...I didn't really do the right things. I played a little bit wrong. I didn't come up to my shots. I was too much on my back foot that I didn't follow through," Azarenka said in assessing the opener. "All those things kind of played into it, and she really did serve well. I didn't really have too many opportunities on her serve except that one game."
The tide began to turn towards the two-time Australian Open champion in the second set, as a break in the second game helped her earn the first three of the set.
Off the ground, Azarenka mirrored her performance of the first set with 10 winners to eight errors, but took advantage of a dip in Watson's level - the Brit struck just five winners and nearly tripled her count of unforced errors with 14.
The Brit held serve in the fourth game - after saving break point - but Azarenka's momentum would not be denied, as she edged the last three games to knot the match at one set apiece.
Six of seven games in the second set went to deuce - but Azarenka won five of those games as she worked her way back into the match.
A key seventh game helped put Azarenka in the lead in the decider, as Watson held six game points at 3-3 before eventually surrendering serve. Nonetheless, the Brit pulled even in the next game, before the Belarusian held on for victory with a second straight break, and dug out of 15-40 in the final game to dash British hopes.
"I felt that the match at the end there could have gone either way. We had a lot of long rallies and, uhm, games that went back and forth, but Vika played great," Watson said. "I thought she got better and better as the match went on. She just kept applying pressure. It was tough, yeah. I thought it could have gone either way. I was gutted to lose that one."
The win for Azarenka sets up the most anticipated match of her comeback thus far - a fourth round date with No.2 seed Simona Halep on Monday.
Though the Belarusian leads the head-to-head 2-1, Halep won their only meeting in the past five years - a 6-3 4-6 6-4 win in the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2015.
Relishing the challenge against the World No.2, Azarenka added: "I think I'm a pretty well-rounded player, and I'm a big fighter. It doesn't really matter to me who is on the other side. I always treat my matches, you know, and every opponent I respect the same way, but it is good for me to play against her."
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