Australian Open: Azarenka d. Hampton

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Jamie Hampton is from Auburn, Ala., and for the first six games of her third-round match against Victoria Azarenka, she played about as well as Auburn’s football team did this past season. (They went 3-9; 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference.) She displayed no obvious weapons and was quickly down 5-1 to Azarenka, who, like Auburn’s hated rival Alabama, is top-ranked.

Tennis matches can change as quickly as football games, and that’s what happened when Hampton broke Azarenka as the world No. 1 served for the first set. The solitary break didn’t seem like much at the time, but it signaled a complete shift in Hampton’s confidence and performance. The American would erase the double-break deficit—though not totally, as she’d be broken while trailing 4-5—go on to win the second set with some creative and assertive play, and even take a break-of-serve lead in the third.

But while Hampton wouldn’t complete the turnaround, like the Tigers famously did against the Tide in the 2010 Iron Bowl, her improvement made for an entertaining 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 match, a score which should both encourage the 23-year-old and concern the tournament’s top seed.

Let’s address Hampton first. After overcoming bouts of nerves and poor play, she showed off a variety of smooth, effective strokes, including a whipping forehand that constantly troubled Azarenka. Even during the final game, with Hampton in obvious discomfort after injuring her back—she called for the trainer before serving for the first set—the shot continued to overpower Azarenka and dictate how the rallies were played. That is, if there was much of a rally at all: Hampton clocked a number of stone-cold winners, many on service returns. Hampton called the shots in this one, and Azarenka was fortunate that her adversary wasn’t at 100 percent.

But whatever “percent” Hampton was, it was enough to confound Azarenka, who watched in frustrated disbelief as shot after shot found its mark. Serving to level the match at a set apiece, Hampton kept pushing Azarenka back with her groundstrokes and forcing short replies, except when she didn’t—one of her best shots was a high slice from the behind the baseline that died just after it flew over the net. Everything was clicking for the world No. 63, but how long could she keep this up?

I asked myself that question when Hampton, laboring and on the verge of tears, nevertheless broke Azarenka for a 2-1 lead in the third. By this point, Azarenka’s passive play was just as much a culprit of her predicament as was Hampton’s firepower; Vika was waiting for a collapse that never seemed to come. Finally, Azarenka broke the spell with a break for 4-2, but she was still made to recover from 0-40 in the next game. The end couldn’t come soon enough for Azarenka, who will play either Roberta Vinci or Elena Vesnina in the fourth round.

I couldn’t help but compare this match to last night’s showdown between Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams, which the Russian won commandingly. I’m not sure the third round could have gone more differently for Azarenka and Sharapova, the two favorites to win the title after Serena Williams. Azarenka drew the short straw when Serena landed in her half, and should they meet—and Azarenka play like she did today—she’d be lucky to win a handful of games. Hampton rightfully earned praise for her perseverance, but the bigger takeaway was Azarenka’s inability to take control, a quality I thought was behind her after last year's breakthrough.

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