Stanford: V. Williams d. Azarenka

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Venus Williams beat Victoria Azarenka, 6-4, 7-6 (1) to advance to the Stanford quarterfinals. (AP Photo)

Two of the most distinguished wild cards any tournament could hope to recruit had at it last night in the second round at Stanford, with Venus Williams winning this clashing, clanging groundstroke battle of former no. 1s,  6-4, 7-6 (1).

Williams may be 34 years old, but she appears to be playing with youthful bounce and exuberance that hasn’t been quite so conspicuous in recent years. Using her outstanding serve as a bullet proof vest, she throttled and ultimately overpowered one of the most indomitable players in recent memory, capping her performance with a masterful tiebreaker that ended it after an hour and three-quarters.

Both ladies showed up for this one eager to play, stoked to show their best stuff — in Williams’s case, that would be the heavy serve and the laser-like two-handed backhand — or so it seemed. As for Azarenka, she seemed as eager to powder the ball off either wing — as you might expect from a born ball striker who’s been forced to the sidelines for too long. Because of a tricky foot injury, Azarenka has played all of four matches since she lost at the Australian Open, and only one of those was a win. The rust evident in her game worked against her in this one.

The first opening occurred with Williams serving the third game of the first set. She sprayed a few balls and missed a few first serves and found herself down three break points at love-40. She took a deep breath, though, and played as if she sensed that Azarenka’s lack of recent match play was her greatest ally. She hit one winner and exploited two Azarenka errors to get back to deuce. Another backhand error brought Williams to game point, and she secured it with a backhand cross-court passing shot placement.

Seemingly discouraged by the failure to break, Azarenka allowed Venus a break point in the next, fourth game. Williams made the most of the opportunity. She stuck big forehand return to take control of a brief rally that she won when Azarenka’s backhand misfired.

Up 3-1, Williams lost and played a few sloppy points to allow Azarenka a break point of her own. Now ranked No. 10, Azarenka celebrated her 25th birthday by putting a Williams second serve into play with pace; the end result was a backhand rally error by Williams. It hit the reset button: 3-2 on serve, Williams leading.

The women settled into a holding pattern after that, and it lasted until the final game of the set. In that one, Azarenka demonstrated that she was sorely lacking match seasoning when she hit a pair of double faults from 15-all to provide Williams with two set points. Not to be outdone in the goof department, Williams badly mangled an inside-out forehand from well inside the court on the first break point.

A service return error by Williams then got Azarenka back to the haven of deuce, but an aggressive backhand approach by Williams paid off in another break point, and she converted it to win the set when Azarenka anxiously swung too fast at a Williams return and drove the ball into the net.

The women played then through seven holds to leave Williams up 4-3 in the second set, by which time an unexpected trend was clearly making Azarenka’s life more complicated.Williams was winning her second serve points at an excellent, 75 percent success rate. Given that one of the few ways to hurt Williams is to make the most of second serve return opportunities on a day when her first serve hovers around 50 percent or below, this was bad news for Azarenka. It was complicated by the fact that Williams was also hitting a 75 percent success rate against Azarenka’s second serve.

No wonder then, that Williams was able to break Azarenka for 5-3, the last shot a terrific inside-out forehand blast that ended the longest rally of the match (22 shots). Within minutes, though, Azarenka had leveled the match again when Venus clawed her way back from love-40 only to double fault after wiping away the first two break points with positive, aggressive shotmaking.

Two holds later, Azarenka found herself serving to force the tiebreaker. She got into trouble, thanks largely to her Achilles heel — a so-so first serve, and a vulnerable second. But she’s a battler, and although Williams had two match points in that game, Azarenka gritted her teeth and survived both — despite failing to hit the 100 mph mark on most of her first serves in that game. Once again, her fearless groundstroke placements got her out of trouble.

It seemed that the momentum had shifted once again, but Williams was having none of it. She won a long rally to hold the first point of the breaker, then swiftly broke Azarenka twice with stunning, stinging forehands. She then hit a service winner to build her lead to 4-0, then got the best of a furious rally when Azarenka made a backhand error.

Azarenka won a point for 1-5, whereupon she produced one of her half-dozen double faults to give Williams a handful of match points. With that insurance policy, Williams needed just one, winning the match with her final forehand unreturnable on a night when she hit more of those than any evening in recent memory. Venus will play No. 8 seed Andrea Petkovic for a semifinal spot.

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