Racquet Reaction

Roland Garros: Azarenka d. Kirilenko

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 /by
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Friends and former doubles teammates Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirilenko were locked as tight as dance partners for one set. Early in the second, Azarenka charged the net and hammered an overhead that left a lunging Kirilenko flinging her body—and her Yonex racquet—across the red clay as the ball blurred by and the frame rolled over in the dirt.

That shot symbolized Kirilenko's afternoon: She threw everything she had at her opponent and the ball, but ultimately came up a shot short and couldn't stay in step with the Australian Open champion. Azarenka relied on some bold shotmaking to seize a tense tiebreaker, then began striking with more conviction, running off five of the final six games to storm into her first French Open semifinal with a 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory.

Separation between the pair was as slight as the optic orange wristbands Azarenka wore. Familiarity from playing doubles and practicing together meant each woman seemed to sense the other's moves in early exchanges. They collaborated on four straight breaks to open the match, followed by four straight service holds, as neither woman could gain more than a one-game lead.

Kirilenko, who took an injury time-out to treat her sore shoulder in the second set of her fourth-round win over Bethanie Mattek-Sands, hit a sharp-angled backhand winner cross-court to hold at 15 for 4-3, then left the court for an eight-minute injury time-out. When play resumed, Azarenka smacked a backhand winner to hold for 4-4. The ninth game escalated into the longest of the match, with Kirilenko fighting off three break points for an 11-minute hold.

The 12th-ranked Russian was two points from the set with Azarenka serving at deuce down 4-5, but the Belarusian blasted a backhand off the back edge of the baseline for the ad, and held for 5-all when Kirilenko crashed a return into the top of the tape. They then traded breaks, with Kirilenko completing the sixth service break of the set to force the tiebreaker.

Opening her shoulders and stepping close to the baseline, Azarenka belted a backhand winner cross-court, crunched an inside-out forehand winner, then benefited from a double fault to take a 4-1 lead in the deciding session. When Kirilenko sailed a return deep, Azarenka had five set points at 6-1. Two points later, Azarenka leaned into a stinging backhand winner cross-court to collect the one hour and 16-minute opening set on the strength of 18 winners compared to Kirilenko's ten.

The 6'0" Azarenka is the bigger, stronger player and had scored three consecutive straight-sets wins over Kirilenko. Once she had the first set in hand, Azarenka, a lethal returner who has won nearly 57 percent of her return games this season, began to swing more freely, relying on her superior power and timing to win 76 percent of the points played on Kirilenko's second serve. She's not a comfortable slider on clay, but Azarenka made a terrific defensive stab off a one-handed backhand to extend a point and Kirilenko, with the entire court open, dribbled a drop shot attempt into the bottom of the net to face break point. That shot seemed to haunt her, as she double faulted to gift Azarenka the break and a 3-1 lead. Vika emphatically backed up the break with a love hold and never looked back, wrapping up a one hour, 51-minute win when Kirilenko slapped a forehand long.

This is Azarenka's fifth semifinal in her last six Grand Slam tournaments; she will face reigning champion Maria Sharapova for a spot in the final. Vika is 7-5 lifetime vs. Maria, but Sharapova has won both of their clay-court meetings.

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