French Open: Azarenka d. Brianti
Victoria Azarenka had seen this before, from both players' perspectives. In March, at Indian Wells, the world No. 1 found herself in a third set after leading by a set and 4-0; in that same, crazy match, she rallied from a double-break deficit and eventually pulled out the victory.
But that was against Mona Barthel, the young German already rising her way up the ranks. Today's match, which saw Azarenka rally from a set and 4-0 down to win 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2, came against 32-year-old Alberta Brianti, she of the No. 105 world ranking and 10-14 singles record. Relief? Azarenka had it in spades when her first-round scare was over.
The top seed had unforced errors in spades, too. Twenty-seven in the first set, which at one point Azarenka led 2-0. But she dropped the next four games in a set no one wanted to win until Brianti's fourth set point, when an Azarenka backhand sailed long in an extended tiebreaker.
Azarenka's play would only deteriorate further—17 unforced errors later, she found herself down 4-0 in the second and staring an embarassing round-one exit—and countless questions about her effort—in the face.
The term "unforced error" can be misleading, though, as Brianti's excellent early play frustrated Azarenka and planted the seed for many of her misses. The Italian displayed a natural clay-court game from the onset, moving better than Azarenka and tormenting her with her slice backhand. The shot sat on the clay but moved through it; it's a tough shot to handle on its own, but it also deprived Azarenka of the pace she craves. Vika's backhand bombs were tougher to uncoil against Brianti, who earned games both with her well-executed strategy—which included some eye-popping winners as well, from both sides—and via errors from her opponent.
But the turning points of the match, which commentator Chris Evert pointed out essentially as they happened, occurred when Brianti failed to secure a 5-0, one-would-think-insurmountable lead. Still reeling and playing perhaps her worst tennis of the day, Azarenka faced a second serve down break point—after hitting a few double faults already, just landing the serve in was no sure thing. Instead, she grazed the line for an ace. A well-placed drop shot saved another, and Azarenka stopped the bleeding to hold for 4-1.
I didn't think about it much at the time, but in what seemed like only minutes later, Azarenka had collected five more games for the set, and the comeback/collapse was on. A Brianti break to open the third was a suprise, but a greater shock would have been if she actually managed to right herself after squandering so large a lead. That never happened, and despite a very concerning performance, Azarenka advanced.