Three-time Miami Open champion Victoria Azarenka maintained her mastery over fellow former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber Saturday, winning 12 of the final 15 games against her German rival to secure a 7-5, 6-2 victory on Grandstand court.
"I did a good job of maintaining positive energy when things weren't working out in the beginning," she said after the match. "I was looking for the right approach and trying to find my rhythm. The game, the movement and rhythm eventually came, but it all stemmed from my approach, my mentality."
Azarenka was playing her first match since pulling out of the Qatar Total Open semifinals with a back injury. Seeded No. 14 in Miami, she rallied from a slow start to book a highly-anticipated fourth round encounter with world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in just over 90 minutes.
The Florida-based Belarusian looked to be a heavy favorite against Kerber heading into the match, having won all but one of their previous nine encounters, including a three-setter at the 2019 Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey.
"All of the matches we've played end up being huge battles. It's never an easy match, and they're always quality. Our games match pretty well. She's a counter-attacking player and great on defense, and I use that part of my game as well, so it makes for a lot of long rallies and tough games. I feel I've always managed to take my chances in our matches, but I know they'll be tough, so I'm always prepared to play Angelique fully!"
Kerber has also been decidedly out of form since tournaments resumed from lockdown—winning back-to-back matches just once since the US Open—but the No. 24 seed nonetheless put down an emphatic 6-0, 6-0 scoreline on Renata Zarazua to kick off her Miami campaign and continued that momentum early on against Azarenka.
From an initial break down, the three-time Grand Slam champion won the next four games and had points for 5-2 before Azarenka could find her footing.
Once into the match, Kerber found Azarenka much tougher to contend with as the 31-year-old reeled off nine of the next 10 games to sweep the opening set and move ahead by a double break in the second.
"I've played enough on tour to know that one set is not enough and anything can happen," Azarenka said, "but I definitely felt more in control with my game, and that the longer the match went on, the better my rhythm was getting."
Azarenka was undeterred even as Kerber clawed back some of the deficit, punctuating the win with a forehand approach up the line—her 25th winner of the match.
Doubles Partner Barty Next Foe After Ostapenko Victory
Defending champion Barty awaits after the Aussie won a battle of former Roland Garros champions against Jelena Ostapenko. In an obvious contrast in styles, Barty’s spins fared far better in the windy conditions than Ostapenko’s flatter strikes, and helped her earn a 6-3, 6-2 win that strengthened her bid to retain the No. 1 ranking.
"I think today felt like I was a lot sharper and switched on and ready to go from the very first point," Barty said. "I give myself another opportunity to try and do that again in another match in a couple days' time.
"I think that's probably the most pleasing thing is that each day we continue to learn, each day we continue to grow and continue to try and develop our game and learn from our mistakes, learn from all experiences that we have."
If Barty falls before the semifinals, reigning Australian Open and US Open champion Naomi Osaka can usurp her by reaching the final, but will have to win the title if the top seed makes it into the final four.
Barty and Azarenka were top-level doubles partners throughout 2019, winning the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome while finishing runner-up at the US Open to Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Their most recent meeting came in Fed Cup, where Barty won in two tight sets.
"She's established herself pretty well where she is," Azarenka said of her good friend. "With the pandemic restrictions, we haven't seen much of her, so it's harder to judge where her game is at, though she produced some incredible tennis at the Australian Open. She's a very talented player and I've always been a fan of her game, how she plays and and handles herself. She has a lot of variety and pretty much every shot there is. I'm really looking forward to playing against her, but I also miss playing doubles with her! Hopefully we can play a few more again."
Sabalenka, Svitolina Advance
Around the grounds, No. 7 seed Sabalenka won a rematch of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open final against Veronika Kudermetova, edging out the No. 32 seed 7-6 (4), 6-4. In the high-quality contest, Azarenka’s compatriot struck 18 winners to just 11 unforced errors to improve to 2-0 in tour-level matches against the Russian.
"It definitely was a battle, and she played really well," a breathless Sabalenka said during her on-court interview. "Her serve was unbelievable today. I couldn't do anything against it today, and I think I was just lucky to get the break!"
Sabalenka is looking to reach her first quarterfinal at either of the Sunshine Swing tournaments, having reached just one fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells back in 2019. Standing in her way is No. 19 seed Marketa Vondrousova, who came back from a set down to win an entertaining match against No. 11 seed Belinda Bencic.
No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina also advanced in Miami, backing up her hard-fought win against American Shelby Rogers by defeating No. 30 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 7-6 (1), 6-4. The Ukrainian has reached just one Miami Open quarterfinal back in 2018, and will face Petra Kvitova in the round of 16 after the two-time Wimbledon winner ousted 2017 champion Johanna Konta in straight sets..