Madrid: Azarenka d. Pavlyuchenkova

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Victoria Azarenka had won her first 17 completed matches of 2013 coming into Madrid, but until the last ball was played today, she was never a sure thing to make it 18-0. Vika, who had been sidelined for nearly two months with an ankle injury, faced Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her first match back. The Russian, with new coach Martina Hingis on the sidelines, was coming off a clay-court title in Portugal and appeared ready to pick up where she left off there. Despite a 0-3 career record against Azarenka, Pavs hung with her early and didn’t get discouraged when she fell behind. Vika ended up winning in straights, but Pavlyuchenkova pushed her to the limit. Pavs came back from a break down in both sets, and forced Azarenka to use nine set points to win the first. The problems for Pavs came when she took the lead. After all of her comebacks, she ended up squandering three set points in the first set, and three more in the second. Azarenka finally wrapped up No. 18 with a see-saw 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3) win.

Azarenka was rusty, and it took her all of three games to flash her trademark squint of irritation at some late-arriving fans. She had trouble timing her backhand, made 41 total errors against 34 winners, and couldn’t close either set when she appeared to be in control. In part she won this one on her reputation. Faced with a golden opportunity to win each set, Pavlyuchenkova handed them back on a silver platter. She was up 6-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, and in the second served at 6-5, 40-0 before making four straight inexplicable errors. Perhaps even worse, at 7-7 in the first-set breaker, Pavs played a perfect point, set herself up with a forehand sitter and a wide open court, only to pulled the ball an inch wide. Fans in the crowd covered their faces and stood up in shocked frustration.

Despite those brain cramps, though, and despite 43 errors against 28 winners, this was a promising performance from Pavlyuchenkova. She stayed in rallies with the world No. 3 and even outhit her at times. She saved eight set points in the first, many with big serves and forehands. And she didn’t go away when she got behind 4-1 and 5-2 in the second. She might have been tired from her recent wins, but Pavs didn’t use that as an excuse. Unfortunately, all of her persistence only allowed her to blow it horribly in the end.

This was the first I had seen of Hingis, who was miked up for sideline chats, as a coach. The initial impression was positive: She explained rather then lectured, was upbeat but challenging, and she talked about tactical details. Hingis clearly brings the high expectations of a former world No. 1 to the table, something that should only help the underachieving Pavlyuchenkova get closer to realizing her considerable potential. When Hingis urged her to bring Azarenka “the big ball,” Pavs listened, became more aggressive, and broke serve.

For Pavlyuchenkova, it was one to build on. For Azarenka, it was one to get through. Now that she has, she’ll move on to play Ekaterina Makarova.

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