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Straight-sets victory so sweet for Victoria Azarenka

by Ronald Atkin
Monday 23 June 2014
For Victoria Azarenka, a Grand Slam champion and former world No.1, a first round victory, even one at Wimbledon, would appear to be routine stuff. But her 6-3, 7-5 dismissal of Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, ranked 108, was, she was delighted to report, “very special”.
 
It was on this very same No.1 Court, and in the very same round, exactly a year ago that Azarenka damaged her right knee and was forced to pull out of The Championships 2013, setting off 12 months of injury misery. This was her first win in almost five months, since she reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, and only her third match since then because of left foot problems.
 
After Australia, Azarenka lost her first attempted comeback at Indian Wells in March and she was also beaten in the first round of Eastbourne last week.
 
Hardly the most propitious of omens for someone who has twice been a Wimbledon semi-finalist, so it was no wonder she looked radiant as she said: “I am so happy and excited to get a win. I am very happy to be able to play, and the best feeling is to play pain-free. That’s what is important to me.
 
“Getting my game together again, and the timing, is a long process. But the important thing is that I’m there 100 percent. My focus is there. My desire and concentration is there. That’s all I can ask for in myself.”
 
What the woman from Belarus might reasonably demand of herself, given time and more successes, is a closer version of the game which propelled her to the peak of the women’s rankings in January 2012. It was understandable that her tennis should not yet be hiccup-free, but if her play carried traces of rust, she was in good company. As plain Miss Lucic, her opponent has known bleak times since bursting into the 1999 Wimbledon semi-finals as a 15-year-old but her ability to produce moments of brilliance was enough to push Azarenka to the limits of her retrieving skills.
 
After racing into a 4-1 first set lead, Azarenka was suddenly plagued by double faults but, bolstered by Lucic-Baroni’s total of 13 unforced errors, she gave herself the huge boost of a one-set lead when, on set point, the Croat struck a simple forehand well out of court.
 
Suitably stirred, Lucic-Baroni gained much from her treatment of the Azarenka second serve and led 3-1 in the second set, only to be clawed back to 3-3. It was a sign that Azarenka’s rehab is only just getting under way that she fell 5-3 behind again and needed to fight off a set point at that stage.
 
That achievement sparked off a revival which was a reminder of happier days as she swept the next three games. She acknowledged that the second set, in which she did not lead for the first time until the 11th game, was “a bit tricky”, but added: “I’m just happy I stayed in there and fought for every point.”
 
Azarenka was also happy to show off her fingernails, coloured light blue in honour of the Argentina football team which she says she has supported through the last three World Cups. And her true affection? “I love Messi, I think he’s one of the greatest players of all time. He’s so little, so cute.”

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