Victoria Azarenka is going to be one of the clear favourites for Wimbledon this year but any conviction she had on that score was interrupted for some time when she made her start to the tournament on No. 1 court against the 78th-ranked Irina Falconi of the United States.
Azarenka, the 22-year-old from Belarus, seemed destined for an easy paced start but her lapses and some spells of sheer defiance from Falconi guaranteed a much closer contest before Azarenka won 6-1, 6-4 in 77 minutes.
Azarenka won the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam title, in January and is second seed at Wimbledon where she was a semi-finalist last year. Today marked her seventh start at Wimbledon but she was reminded how difficult things can be all the way through an 11-minute opening game in which Falconi held no fewer than seven break points. Azarenka saved them all.
Azarenka varied her approach from one ace to a couple of double faults while Falconi, nerveless in her second Wimbledon, fought hard but unsucessfully to gain an immediate breakthrough in a game which was eventually settled by a drop shot from Azarenka.
Under the grey skies Falconi, Ecuadorean-born but now resident in Florida, might have hoped for more rewards in the first set but she could win only one game, a break of serve for 4-1 when Azarenka double-faulted on break point.
Azarenka ran out the set in 34 minutes and took a break of serve at the start of the second, gaining a break point with a rush to the net for a backhand drop volley.
Azarenka moved on to lead 4-1 but then lost her serve for the second time in the contest when Falconi hit three clean winners, a reflection of her growing confidence in her second Wimbledon.
Falconi maintained her improvement, taking her opponent’s serve for a second time for 4-4. Azarenka was flustered and double-faulted twice in the midst of the turmoil but then took a clear decision to go for broke.
Falconi was forced to surrender the lead to Azarenka at 5-4 after saving two break points and Azarenka went on to serve for the match in a confident and compact game. She had to replay one match point when Falconi won a challenge, missed a second chance when the American fired a backhand winner, and took victory with a service winner.
There will be much more to come from Azarenka on the evidence of the year so far. But today reminded her that she can take nothing for granted.