Victoria Azarenka touted Mona Barthel as one to watch in January and staved off the rising star today in Stuttgart. Overpowered at times by Barthel's ballistic strikes, Azarenka played the climactic points with more discipline to subdue the German wild card, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 7-5, in a two-hour and 48-minute Stuttgart quarterfinal packed with eye-popping winners and mind-numbing errors.
When the red dust had settled, Azarenka survived a 62-winner onslaught from Barthel, who betrayed her own cause with 43 unforced errors, including 16 double faults. It was Azarenka's second close call against Barthel: She fought back for a 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) win last month in Indian Wells.
The 35th-ranked Barthel generates such tremendous racquet head speed from her fluid swings that the ball sounds heavier exploding off the strings. Her fearless disposition, lethal serve (when she's landing it) and the ability to hit all the angles off her authoritative strokes make Barthel a player on the fast track to the Top 10, though her penchant for playing too close to the lines and sometimes trying to end points prematurely are among the pot holes she must navigate to get there.
Azarenka's aggressive baseline game rocketed her on a 26-match winning streak to start the season, but she was backed up behind the baseline and forced to counter against an opponent who offers almost no rhythm in rallies. In the first set, Barthel treated the top seed's second serve like a pinata in punishing ambitious returns, winning 11 of 12 such points played. But Azarenka took advantage of eight double faults from Barthel in the set, and broke for the third time to collect the opener. She then built a 3-1 second-set lead, only to see Barthel lift her level and eventually tie it at 5-all. Barthel dug out of a triple break-point hole, saving the third with her 10th ace, then crunched a backhand winner cross-court to hold for 6-5.
The Belarusian tightened in an eventual tiebreaker, double faulting and netting a backhand return to fall into a 3-5 hole. On set point, Barthel was four feet behind the baseline when she dug out a defensive forehand that landed at mid-court. Azarenka got to the ball quickly, set her feet, but banged a backhand wide, as Barthel took the 63-minute second set on the strength of 29 winners.
The Azarenka of old may have raged after squandering leads of 3-1 in the second set and 4-2 in the third, but she's a much better pressure player now, and got right back to work. Azarenka, who was 14 of 16 on net points, hit a fine backhand drop volley and eventually earned match point in the 10th game, only to see Barthel erase it at the two hour, 40-minute mark. Two games later, Barthel imploded, hitting a double fault and netting a forehand to face three more match points. A match with so much sizzle ended with a fizzle as Barthel's 16th double fault sent Azarenka into the semifinals against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she has beaten four times this year.