After a dominating, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Tamira Paszek to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon, Victoria Azarenka unexpectedly teared up when a BBC reporter asked her about the match: “It’s my mom’s birthday, so I was really trying to give her a good gift and play beautiful today,” she explained earnestly.
Mission accomplished. Much has been said about Azarenka’s perennial quarterfinalist-at-best record at Grand Slams. Much was expected of her today, especially given her relatively soft draw (Azarenka’s highest-seeded opponent so far has been No. 25 Daniela Hantuchova) and yesterday’s fourth-round upsets. And circumstances that could have been conducive to choking away this opportunity were in place. Scheduled second on Court 1 after 1 p.m., Azarenka and Paszek endured a long, frustrating wait before finally taking the court—only for play to be suspended after one game. When they resumed nearly an hour later, it was on a closed Centre Court, a different and sometimes suffocating environment.
But despite the occasional wobble, Azarenka rose to the occasion, delivering a perfectly-pitched performance of controlled aggression. She broke serve in Paszek’s second service game, and then broke again to lead 4-1. Serving for the set, Azarenka hit a couple of uncharacteristic errors, allowing Paszek in the match for the first time. The Austrian broke back with a beautiful, down-the-line winner, but Azarenka rallied immediately to break for the set and never looked back.
Azarenka is a player who looks at her best when she plays like a predator; it’s vital for her not to back off from her shots, and even by Wimbledon’s generous counts, 30 winners to eight unforced errors and 19 successful net approaches out of 22 speak to her success there. This surface can showcase good movement and expose bad, and Azarenka—a player who’s willing to run all day—has never looked more dialed-in when it came to her footwork. Her best moment came at 0-40 on Paszek’s first service game on the second set, when she chased down a sharp-angled volley and hit a forehand winner around the net-post to break. Sheer magic for the Centre Court crowd.
Paszek, who won her first WTA title at 15 and once beat Azarenka on the way to the junior girls’ title here, has had a fairytale Wimbledon. The redemptive narrative has been rather overshadowed by Sabine Lisicki, but Paszek has also struggled with horrific and lingering injuries, and did incredibly well to reach the quarterfinals. There were moments when she showed the kind of form, particularly with her backhand, that demonstrated just how she did it.
Still, there comes a moment in (almost) every plucky underdog’s Wimbledon run when a top seed steps in and restores reality, and Azarenka did that today. She has secured her first Grand Slam semifinal and a meeting with streaky Petra Kvitova, and a chance of her own fairytale Wimbledon. Like all the best birthday presents, it’s even better to give than to receive.