Victoria Azarenka lost a 15-minute game to fall behind 1-3 in the first set against everyone’s favorite sleeper at the Australian Open. Later, in the 11th game, the top seed was two points from losing the set to Svetlana Kuznetsova—twice. Yet she hung on in each case, apparently blotting out the fact that Kuznetosva’s two career Grand Slams is one better than her own one.
Maybe that one, earned here last year, is so precious that Azarenka will go to any lengths to keep it, and she took a major step in that quest tonight. She ended up winning a set that went on for an hour and 17 minutes, with too many critical moments and putative turning points to count, 7-5. Then came the deluge, with Azarenka pulling away to win 7-5, 6-1 in three minutes short of two hours.
This was a tantalizing match-up, for Kuznetsova has the versatility and variety to counter Azarenka’s straight-ahead power. The Russian underdog, who was no more threatening than a qualifier a few weeks ago, can slice, hit the drop shot, nail her backhand down the line and mix up pace. The theory was that if she could keep Azarenka guessing, she was in with a shot.
As theories go, it was a good one, bolstered by two interesting details. First, more and more players are recognizing the value of the drop shot as a game-changer against big hitters, and Kuznetsova has the soft hands to make the most of that tactic. Second, coming into the match, Kuznetsova had won 65 of the 80 points she played when moving up to the net.
While Kuznetsova did go to the drop shot to earn some critical points, the most germane and surprising stat was Azarenka’s unexpected superiority at the net. She approached 22 times and won exactly half those points. By contrast, Kuznetsova won an outstanding 92 percent of her net adventures—but came forward just a dozen times.
Azarenka’s bold strategy underscored her qualities as a champion. Numerous great players have pointed out that perhaps the only thing more difficult than winning a major is defending that victory, and today Azarenka was offered a great cop-out—a chance to go all Petra Kvitova or Li Na on us. Instead, she sent a message that her rivals, in particular, Maria Sharapova will not want to hear: “I can handle this!”
The first set is the only one worth talking about, and it was distinguished by Azarenka’s ability to withstand an uncomfortable degree of pressure, and Kuznetsova’s talent for playing what I think of as guerilla tennis—that is, the ability to mount enough stubborn resistance to prevent an opponent from winning, while not having the game and/or the gumption to claim the match for herself.
Kuznetsova survived a harbinger first game, fending off a break point, and broke in that long, aforementioned fourth game. It featured 10 deuces but, significantly, just one break point in that entire string. Azarenka didn’t blow those hold opportunities; Kuznetsova just dug in her heels and came up with excellent service returns, drop shots, and placements when she needed them. When Azarenka finally was broken, and Kuznetsova managed to fend off a break point in the subsequent game to hold for 4-1, it seemed that Vika might fold.
But the Belarusian Bomber proved that she’s made from better stuff. Seemingly oblivious to pressure and disinclined to panic in the face of Kuznetsova’s variety—as Tennis Channel commentator Martina Navratilova put it, “Sveta is throwing the kitchen sink at her”—Azarenka produced a quick hold and then a quick break that suddenly made all that effort Sveta had put into earning that first break seem redundant. Kuznetsova’s fans can tell you that’s not an unfamiliar saga, but in all fairness, Azarenka deserves more credit than Kuznetsova does blame.
Kuznetsova held with little drama in the next game to lead 5-4. Serving to stay in the set, Azarenka nailed the best shot of the match to that point at 30-all—an explosive down-the-line backhand winner. But a pretty Kuznetsova drop shot to the Azarenka backhand forced a deuce. Azarenka had a game point next, but double-faulted back to deuce. She atoned with an ace, but shanked a forehand for another deuce. But once again, Azarenka reached ad, and this time screamed with relief when Kuznetsova swatted a backhand service return out for 5-all.
All the while, Azarenka was wearing down Kuznetsova, who probably wasn’t prepared mentally or physically to play so much top-class tennis so early in this, a comeback year. Kuznetsova’s service return also was inadequate to the task at hand, while Azarenka used hers to apply constant pressure.
Kuznetsova won just one point in the next game before Azarenka belted a prodigious forehand winner to bag the key break. Although Kuznetsova forced the next game to deuce and survived two set points, Azarenka converted the third when Sveta sliced a crosscourt backhand wide. From there, it was a sad story of a dispirited Kuznetsova mounting token resistance in which she herself didn’t appear to believe, and Azarenka stretching those long legs in a sprint down the home stretch—leaving the two-time Grand Slam champ far, far behind.