MIAMI, FL, USA - The Miami Open has long been one of Victoria Azarenka's favorite hunting grounds, and she once again displayed vintage form in Florida, striking 41 winners to pass a stern test from Dominika Cibulkova in the first round 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in two hours and 31 minutes.
Three times a champion - in 2009, 2011 and 2016 - in the tournament's previous venue on Key Biscayne, Azarenka also scored the best result to date of her post-maternity career in Miami last year with a run to the semifinals.
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It's also a familiar site for the Belarusian's 13-year strong rivalry with Cibulkova. Two of her seven previous wins had come here, although both had necessitated battling comebacks: in the 2011 third round, Azarenka trailed 3-6, 1-3 before recovering to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, and in the 2012 fourth round she managed to overturn a 1-6, 0-4 deficit to triumph 1-6, 7-6(7), 7-5.
The latter of those was, in fact, Azarenka's most recent victory over the Slovak, who has pulled the head-to-head back to a more respectable 7-3 with two wins since then. But today, in a battle of unseeded 29-year-olds, it was the former World No.1 who asserted her supremacy again - and although the match would be extended to a third set for the seventh time in the pair's last eight meetings, Cibulkova was once again denied in the decider.
"Even though we know each other pretty well, I feel that we haven't played in a few years," Azarenka told press in Miami. "I feel the last time was actually in Miami but five years ago or so.
"She's a very dangerous opponent, because no matter how many, she comes off confident or not confident against top players, she's always bringing a little bit of a next level and good game. She's a big fighter. So I knew it's not going to be easy, for sure."
Cibulkova came out of the blocks with some scintillating tennis, with her backhand producing five clean winners in the first three games alone and her forehand down the line a further three as the set progressed. But Azarenka ruthlessly and efficiently managed to smother the World No.35's dynamism with consistency, depth and accuracy in moving the ball around, striking 15 winners to just five unforced errors in the opening set.
The two-time Australian Open champion was also razor-sharp on her first strikes. Throughout the first set, Azarenka won 86% of her first serve points, continually mixing its direction up to score numerous cheap points off it and never facing a break point.
When stepping up to the line to receive, the World No.46 was also relentless in attacking her opponent's delivery, with Cibulkova stretched to deuce in each of her first-set service games. A backhand return winner gained Azarenka the immediate break in the opening game; a forehand return winner sealed the double break for 5-2.
Staying positive, Cibulkova raised her level to open the second set with her best hold of the day so far - and snatching her first break point opportunity with a marvelous lob-drive volley combination to move up 2-0. But Azarenka maintained the pressure on return, launching herself into the Cibulkova serve with abandon over the course of a five-deuce game and eventually regaining the break when the former World No.5 cracked with a double fault.
Nonetheless, Cibulkova had now found her game, controlling her aggression to score 14 winners to seven unforced errors in the second set, and was unhesistating in taking advantage as Azarenka backed off ever so slightly. The 2014 Australian Open finalist gave Azarenka a taste of her own medicine in the eighth game, going after her returns and nailing a crucial forehand down the line to regain the break before serving the set out to 30.
The quality and intensity rose as the match reached its climax in a thrilling decider. Slamming swashbuckling forehand winners with abandon, Cibulkova forced two break points in the third game - only for Azarenka to bail herself out with clutch serving, holding with a seventh ace.
The 2014 Miami semifinalist kept on coming, though, with highlights including ending a ricocheting baseline exchange with a backhand winner to hold for 2-2 and a spectacular single-handed backhand pass at full stretch two games later. Cibulkova's aggression would reap rewards in the fifth game as she took her total of winners to 35, with a booming backhand return garnering the first break of the set for 3-2.
But Azarenka wasted no time in hitting back. Striking her forehand with renewed ferocity, the former World No.1 levelled the scoreline immediately, with Cibulkova missing an all-or-nothing glory backhand by centimetres down break point. The 2014 WTA Finals champion dug herself into an even deeper hole with two double faults in her next service game, relinquishing it from 40-15 up as Azarenka launched a backhand return right at Cibulkova's feet.
The drama wasn't over yet: with Azarenka serving for the match at 30-0, Cibulkova conjured up a brilliant forehand winner and a canny dropshot, ultimately breaking back again at her third opportunity.
But although the double faults were mounting on both sides of the net - Azarenka would finish with five, and Cibulkova seven - they would be more harmful to the latter, who committed another two serving at 4-5.
The match would always be decided by the slimmest of margins and a handful of key points, and so it proved: at 30-30, it was Azarenka who stepped up to strike yet another forehand return winner to make her way to match point for the first time, and thence to play a brilliantly constructed point that she finished with an emphatic smash. A scream of delight showed what it meant to her - and next up for Azarenka will be No.19 seed Caroline Garcia.
"It will actually be interesting for me to play against her, looking backward from the last year," Azarenka said about Garcia. "I think it was the first match, only match we played last year in Cincinnati, actually quite a close match. I had a lot of opportunities in that match.
"She's a very talented player. She has a lot of skills, has a lot of speed on the ball. She has kind of a fast arm with her forehand. A lot of power and spin. She can serve really well. She's a dangerous player, definitely."