Rome: Azarenka d. Stosur

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Skidmarks criss-crossing the red clay like jagged routes overlapping on a map were visual cues of the path Victoria Azarenka took to the Rome semifinals. In a match of wild momentum shifts, Azarenka won five straight games to snatch the first set, Samantha Stosur responded with a seven-game run to take the second, before Vika answered with a streaky 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory.

The third-ranked Belarusian raised her record against Stosur to 8-0 in reaching the final four for the first time in four years. It was an adventure: They combined for 12 service breaks. Playing every shot to Stosur’s weaker backhand wing in one rally, Azarenka paid for her predictability when Stosur stepped up and rammed a two-handed backhand winner down the line for triple break point. A skittish Azarenka sailed a second serve nearly three feet long to donate a love break and 4-2 lead to Stosur.

But the 2010 French Open finalist could not back up the break. A crackling 15-shot rally concluded with Stosur sending a forehand wide; she then double-faulted, and Azarenka was back on serve, 3-4. At that point, Stosur had a 10-1 edge in winners, but Azarenka hit a fine running forehand winner cross-court to level at 4-all. Vika’s third forehand winner in a two-game span gave her the break and a 5-4 lead. Cleaning the baseline with a backhand winner for set point, Azarenka closed the 43-minute opener with a jolting cross-court forehand that Stosur rattled wide.

Azarenka belted a backhand down the line to start the second set with a break—her fifth straight game. Then Sam stopped the streak, varying her hellacious topspin forehand with some soft backhand drop shots in reeling off seven consecutive games. Azarenka did her part, too, twice making a mess of a 40-15 lead and donating points with double faults. The two-time Australian Open champion is a sound lateral mover, but she can be a bit plodding moving forward. Stosur knew that, and dragged Azarenka to the front court with the drop shot. Stosur hit 13 winners against nine unforced errors, while Azarenka managed just three winners with 14 errors, including four double faults, in the second set.

When Stosur ripped a snazzy forehand return winner down the line for a love break and 1-0 third-set lead, Azarenka slumped briefly, looking like a woman in dire need of an espresso. But she found energy from within, breaking back immediately, fighting off a pair of break points then drilling a pair of passing shots to break at 15 for a 3-1 lead.

Serving for the match at 5-3, Azarenka saved three break points as Stosur’s backhand return broke down. Three netted backhand returns in a four-point span left Stosur berating herself down match point, and when she netted a forehand, Azarenka exhaled in relief after a one-hour and 58-minute struggle that was more gritty than pretty. She hit 14 winners against 34 errors, including eight double faults. It ended on a high note with the female Italian PA announcer lyrically bellowing “Vika Azza-Renkaaaa!” as if singing the closing lines of an opera.

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