MALLORCA, Spain - Former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka was a game from defeat in her first match since the 2016 French Open before darkness halted play. Upon resumption, the Belarusian saved three match points to pull off thrilling comeback win over Risa Ozaki, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(7).
“It was definitely complicated, having to stop and come back for a short amount of time,” Azarenka said after the match. “But it was really intense because it was the end of a third set. I had a break, but the intensity of the match was at a high level right away.”
Azarenka was in the midst of a career renaissance last year, winning the elusive Indian Wells-Miami Sunshine Double, earning wins over Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber along the way.
Sitting out the remainder of the season to give birth to baby Leo, the two-time Australian Open champion moved her planned comeback ahead of schedule after initially planning a return at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.
Starting the match on Tuesday night against Ozaki, it was as if she'd never left, racing through the first four games and ultimately taking the opening set with ease.
“I think I started the match really well, but my intensity dropped a lot and it got me into trouble. I let her play more, and she’s such a fighter who brings so many balls back. That’s always tricky when you’re playing your first match in a while. That’s something I had to adapt to.”
Ozaki made a career breakthrough in Miami, reaching the fourth round as a qualifier, and began to show why she's one to watch as the match continued, playing flawless defense and drawing errors from an occasionally rusty Azarenka.
“I don’t think I gave myself enough opportunities to play better in the second set. I started getting down on myself for making mistakes. That cost me the set and in the third, I felt unlucky at the beginning. There were a lot of ups and downs, good shots and then easy mistakes. That’s something to expect after a long break, but definitely something I need to work on.”
Leading by a double break in the deciding set, Ozaki saw her lead narrow but she nonetheless got within a game of the win when darkness fell.
Serving for the match to start play on Wednesday, the 24-year-old lost serve only to win seven straight points to earn three match points in the penultimate game.
“I just had to play the way I started the match. I was watching the ball too much, and not hitting it, making a lot of easy mistakes where I wasn’t finishing my shots. I had to focus on that, and step up my mentality; it was good in the beginning but dropped in the second set. I have to maintain the same intensity regardless of how the game is going.”
Azarenka cleaned up her game to save all three and roar back from a 3-5 deficit in the ensuing tiebreak to clinch victory after two hours and 44 minutes on court (with a night's rest in between).
“I started today breaking back, so I was in a good momentum. I felt like the first two points on my serve cost me and gave her an opportunity to step up. I’m still trying to find my range but mentally, I was there for every point. That and the experience helped me through, even at 40-0 down, I was trying to find my way out of it.”
In all, Azarenka displayed her trademark aggression throughout, hitting 30 winners to 41 unforced errors, and converted seven of 11 break point opportunities.
“I definitely felt better on the tennis court, especially playing-wise. I wouldn’t say I had the best preparation coming to this tournament, but mentally, it’s better to go through this kind of a match.”
Up next for the Belarusian is Croatian youngster Ana Konjuh, who knocked out Ons Jabeur in her opening round match.