Azarenka defies injury to advance in Doha, book Muguruza clash

Azarenka defies injury to advance in Doha, book Muguruza clash

Former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka overcame a lower back injury to upset top seed and doubles partner Elina Svitolina, and will next face Garbiñe Mugurza for a third Qatar Total Open final.

Two-time Qatar Total Open champion Victoria Azarenka emerged victorious with a 6-2, 6-4 win over top seed Elina Svitolina in one of the more bizarre matches of the tournament’s history.

Playing in Doha for the first time since she last won the title in 2013, Azarenka overcame obvious injury to serve out victory in under 90 minutes and extend her unbeaten record at the event to 13-0.

“The pain didn’t really get any better,” she explained in her post-match press conference. “I think I’m pretty proud with how I handled it, mentally. I tried to approach it by focusing on the things I could do, rather than the things I couldn’t. I think that really helped me find ways to first stay in the match and then to create opportunities and take them.”

Azarenka’s ability to upset her doubles partner was never in doubt; the Belarusian had never lost to Svitolina in three previous meetings, starting with a three-set clash at this very tournament back in 2015.

The match, however, took a turn less than two games in when Azarenka called for a medical timeout to address a clear lower back issue. Though she appeared hampered throughout— adjusting her service motion to a more rudimentary wind-up and refusing to sit during changeovers lest the back seize up—her ground game hardly suffered as she struck 25 winners to just 20 unforced errors.

“I would say in the last year, your way of taking responsibility for things changes, and that’s something that comes with age, experience, maturity. I didn’t necessarily feel better in the match, but it was very helpful for me was to focus on what I was able to do, rather than anything else.

“Sometimes, an injury can cloud your judgement; when you’re enduring pain and difficulties, you’re not focusing on what you can do to find solutions.”

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Svitolina, by contrast, appeared frozen by the prospect of overpowering her ailing friend, and struggled to find the rhythm necessary to expose Azarenka’s injury. Saving two match points towards the end of the match, the former world No. 3 got within a game of leveling the second set, but Azarenka held firm and ended the contest on her third opportunity.

“Against Elina, it was really important for me to be aggressive. She’s a very good baseline player, and she counter-attacks a lot, so it was important not to give her opportunities to put me on the move. I think it was important for me to set that tone from the beginning today.”

Azarenka and Svitolina paired up earlier in the week to take on Elena Vesnina and Laura Siegemund. For Vesnina, it was her first match since giving birth to daughter Elizaveta at the end of 2018, and is among many tour moms who cite Azarenka, who gave birth to son Leo in 2016, as an inspiration.

“It’s very flattering that they do say that. I said many times that I think the stereotype of women having kids and not continuing with their careers has been broken. A lot of women are taking chances to fulfill their career potential while prioritizing their family.

“I’m inspired by all of the ladies who come back and fight for their own passions and dreams. It’s really amazing that, in this era, we’ve had this adjustment to where women are able to play for as long as they want.”

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The two-time Australian Open champion will now aim to recover in time for her first semifinal of the season, where she will play fellow former world No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza. Muguruza, who dethroned defending champion Aryna Sabalenka 24 hours earlier, closed out quarterfinal action by sweeping aside Maria Sakkari, 6-3, 6-1.

Azarenka and Muguruza last played in Rome back in September, where the Spaniard rallied from a set down to advance in three.

“I’ll take recovery the way I took the match: one moment at a time. I’ll try to do everything possible and check every option I have to prepare for tomorrow and make the best judgment. I don’t want to sit here and make any decisions; there’s no point. The most important thing is to give myself every possible option to be better.”

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Earlier in the day, 2018 champion Petra Kvitova navigated a three-set thriller against Anett Kontaveit, conquering the Estonian, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Runner-up in Doha to Aryna Sabalenka last year, the No. 4 seed will next face American qualifier Jessica Pegula, who shocked 2017 winner Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 6-1.

“It was a roller-coaster, I would say,” Kvitova said after the match. “It’s tough to play Anett; we had a couple of games that were very tight, so after losing the second set, where I didn’t play my best, I was happy to start well in the third. It was important to get that first break In the third set. The return was also pretty good from my side. I was going for that from the first point, and I think that was the big difference because the rallies were 50/50; when I could put pressure on the return, it was very nice.”

Though Pegula had to fight for her place in the main draw, the 27-year-old is on an impressive trajectory to start the season, knocking out Svitolina at the Australian Open en route to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

"I took a lot from that match,” she said of her Melbourne defeat to good friend Jennifer Brady. “I definitely was, I guess, anxious coming here because you come off such a big quarterfinal, first quarterfinal, a lot of big wins, and then I'm in qualifying here and I have to win three matches.”