Spectators on Centre Court were treated to an exciting programme of women’s quarter-final action. There was the marquee match-up between Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, before Angelique Kerber won a three-set thriller over compatriot Sabine Lisicki. Yet it was ultimately a bonus feature, the transferral of a No.1 court match between Victoria Azarenka and Tamira Paszek to Centre, which proved to be the most exhilarating of all.
In a glorious near-two hour battle – a repeat of their match at the same stage last year – Azarenka pipped the unseeded giant-killer 6-3, 7-6(4). Having reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon for the second straight year, she moves a step closer to regaining the No.1 ranking she first claimed with her Australian Open triumph in January.
The stands emptied following the Kerber-Lisicki match, and never completely re-filled for the Azarenka-Paszek encounter. Azarenka has developed somewhat of a reputation as a court clearer, and understandably, her shrieking, in-your-face intensity and bristling demeanour may not be everbody’s cup of tea. But for those who stayed into the evening at the All England Club, they were treated to a high-quality display from the world No.2.
"By the end of the day, I'm glad I finished today," Azarenka said. "I had a really good match. Very difficult to stay focused throughout the whole day. But it's the same for everybody. The other girls waited even longer and they were on and off the court. But it's tennis. It's Wimbledon. It's rain. It's normal, I guess."
Paszek wasn’t so bad herself, continuing the form that had reaped the Eastbourne title, an upset victory over seventh seed Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of The Championships and a nine-match grass-court winning streak. The result was a contest featuring outstanding ball-striking, intense rallies, closely-fought games and sensational winners – 58 all up, compared to 40 errors.
But Azarenka did everything just that little bit better. She was dominant on serve, dropping just one point for the entire set. And she was even more spectacular on the return, almost Djokovic-esque. Like the Serbian, her ability to anticipate Paszek’s serve and send it back to within inches of the lines – even when on the full stretch – had the Austrian under constant pressure.
"I expected her to play really well," Azarenka said. "She's been playing some amazing tennis lately. No matter what the score is, through her past experience over this month, she can still win. So I was ready every time and you could see whenever she was down, she was really going for it. I had to stay composed and try to stay with her and get the opportunity when I had it."
Cracks began to appear in Paszek’s game, with the world No.2 feasting on her weak second delivery to score the first service break of the match. Boldly hitting out in the next game, Azarenka secured the set with a forehand winner.
It was a tighter affair in the second, with the Austrian’s serve less of a liability. Games went on serve until deep into the set, when again it was Azarenka who made the first move – her winners combined with Paszek’s errors helping the second seed score the break that would see her serve for the match. It seemed Paszek was finally withering under the relentless onslaught.
Well, to everyone but Paszek herself. Hanging in the intense baseline rallies, she extracted several errors from Azarenka before the Belarusian double-faulted to hand back the break. Handed that lifeline, the winners began to flow from Paszek, as did the fist pumps and intense stares toward her support camp. She levelled at 5-5.
"Well, obviously she's a great fighter. She never gives up," Azarenka said. "You always see that, no matter what the score is, she will go for her shots. She has a huge serve, which we all know. Every player that played against her felt that. It's definitely an asset."
The pair traded breaks and the set moved to a tie-break, at which point Paszek exploited her momentum and the crowd’s vociferous support to gain an early mini-break. Yet Azarenka didn’t panic. She played a delightful drop shot winner before later venturing to net to pick off a volley, levelling the breaker at three points apiece. Paszek then dished up a trio of errors after the change of ends, and shortly afterward the No.2 seed secured the win on her second match point.
It was a relieved Azarenka who clenched her fist in the direction of her players’ box, before she shared a respectful handshake at net with Paszek. She’d survived an almighty scare.
And the tests keep coming. Next up for Azarenka is four-time Wimbledon champion Williams, who has beaten the Belarusian in seven of their eight career meetings. It promises to be another scintillating women’s contest, and if the Belarusian’s ability to stay cool under immense pressure comes through against the American like it did tonight, a second major trophy is well within reach.
"I expect to do the best job as I can," Azarenka said. "That's the most I can ask myself for, to make sure when I leave the court I did everything I can, so... There is no more that I can do than just try."