Qualifying begins: 26 June
The Draw: 30 June
Pre-event Press Conferences: 1 & 2 July
Order of Play: 2 July
Championships begin: 3 July
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Seven months after the former world No.1 Victoria Azarenka gave birth to her son Leo, the baby steps of her return to the game are fast developing into giant strides.
In a third round encounter on Centre Court, the British wild card Heather Watson, having never managed to take a set from the Belarusian in four previous meetings, took positive charge of a sparkling opening chapter, aided by the new strength of her serve.
But Azarenka’s signature grit saw her turn the contest around, and just five matches into her comeback, she won 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in two hours and six minutes to earn a place in the last 16 here for the fifth time in her career. She will face the No.2 seed Simona Halep for a place in the quarter-finals.
“This is a new chapter in my life, a second career to me, not a comeback,” said Azarenka, who three hours after this singles match faced Watson again in the mixed doubles, where the Briton is the defending champion with Henri Kontinen. The Belarusian, partnered with Nenad Zimonjic, lost that one in straight sets.
“Those titles I won before are back there in the past, and now I’m seeing this as a new opportunity. In the first set [of the singles] I think I was making her look good as I wasn’t doing the right things. But she really did serve well.
“I was too up-and-down in the match but I did the right things in the important moments. I need to raise my level against Simona. I’m a pretty well-rounded player and a big fighter. The second Monday here is so much great tennis for the fans. I think it’s wonderful.”
Watson came into this joust with an excellent second round win under her belt over the No.18 seed Anastasija Sevastova. The 25-year-old from Guernsey knew she was in good form, having beaten Dominika Cibulkova en route to the semi-finals in Eastbourne last week and taken the runner-up spot at the Surbiton Challenger.
Now ranked 102 after being as high as 38 in early 2015, she was – before this – perhaps best-known for taking Serena Williams within two points of defeat here two years ago.
Azarenka made it clear ahead of the match that in her eyes Watson is defined by very much more than that single match, and treated her opponent with due respect.
Yet as Azarenka’s familiar cooing cry echoed round Centre Court, it was the Briton who took command of a first set filled with crowd-pleasing play.
She was thinking fast, moving quickly and executing well, while Azarenka was making too many mistakes. Instead of crumbling after allowing her opponent back in it with a love break midway through the set, Watson forced Azarenka into error to break again, and took her first ever set from the Belarusian at the earliest opportunity.
It isn’t often that a match between players ranked 683 and 102 is clearly worthy of a place on the greatest stage in tennis, but there was no doubt about this one, even before the entertaining contest got underway.
Azarenka’s official standing is 683, but she was playing here under her Special Ranking of No.6, and had already produced a gritty comeback win from a set down in the first round to the exciting young American Cici Bellis, and an impressive defeat of last year’s semi-finalist Elena Vesnina, seeded No.15 this time.
So it was no shock that she bounced right back in the second – and perhaps it was also not unexpected that Watson’s creeping sense of doubt became almost tangible.
She was still competitive, taking almost every game to deuce, but her mindset was not helped when the double break against her came up with the aid of a net cord.
Azarenka’s own play was not mistake-free – the errors came in small clusters, and she leaked more double faults than she would like.
But Watson’s 11-minute service game at 3-3 was decided by a fabulous Azarenka forehand return and, alas, a mistake from Watson’s wavering forehand. It looked crucial… yet in the next game a Hawk-Eye over-rule gave Watson an opening, and she took her chance to level.
Nonetheless, the match turned again and it was particularly unfortunate that Watson received a time violation as she faced two break points for 4-5. This time it was Azarenka who grabbed her opportunity, and armed with new balls she served out an edgy final game.