Narrow Escape: Azarenka Survives Hampton In Three at the Australian Open

The world #1 had plenty to ponder today as she faced an American underdog.

Sharpening her skills by leaps and bounds of late, Jamie Hampton had reached the third round of a major for the first time.  The 23-year-old American faced world #1 Victoria Azarenka there in a match that looked lopsided on paper but became much closer in reality.  Battling the defending champion at the Australian Open with confidence, Hampton succumbed 6-4 4-6 6-2 only after a three-set match of greater quality on both sides than much of the women’s first week.

Having won just a single game from Sharapova here last year, Hampton needed a more positive start to keep her spirits high.  She showed off a greatly improved forehand over the first several points, although Azarenka displayed her athleticism in ranging to her right to cut off what looked like a winner and redirect it down the line for a winner of her own.  Still, Hampton impressed with her commitment to dictating play behind that shot, which sent an early signal of intent.  So did her ability to hold in her first service game, weathering deep returns from the top seed.

Azarenka constructed points with precision through the next few games, using sweeping angles to open the court and keep Hampton off balance.  The relentlessness of the rallies also seemed calculated to wear down an opponent with less experience and consistency.  As early as the fourth game, the underdog began to leak a handful of routine errors that surrendered the break.  Hampton gamely fought to break point on Azarenka’s serve, which inspired Vika to play some of her most aggressive tennis. Culminating with a well-angled smash, the top seed’s salvage of the break point enabled her to survive a long deuce game that felt like a potential turning point.

As Hampton stayed determined to step inside the baseline whenever possible, Azarenka looked content to absorb the pace and redirect it with greater depth.  The American started to attempt overly aggressive shots towards the end of the first set, aiming too closely to the lines out of respect for her opponent’s admittedly superb defense.  A magnificent scramble to retrieve a cross-court forehand that looked like a sure winner preceded a pinpoint lob over Hampton at net to produce an insurance break.

Soon thereafter, the underdog scored her first break with the assistance of some indifferent serving by Azarenka.  Hampton continued to place herself in winning positions from one rally to the next, sometimes failing to deliver the coup de grace but putting enough pressure on her opponent to exploit the opportunities that presented themselves.  Despite her inexperience, she showed tenacity in outlasting the top seed through a long deuce game, and she built upon that momentum shift with a strong hold.  Breaking Azarenka again, more easily this time, Hampton miraculously restored the set to serve.  But the top speed had accumulated too large a lead to let all of it slip away, breaking Hampton comfortably in the tenth game for the set.

That slightly deflating end to an engaging comeback seemed likely to weigh on the American as the second set began.  To the contrary, Hampton broke Azarenka for the third straight time to open the set, only to hand the break back directly.  Still unable to find rhythm in her service games, the world #1 quickly fell behind triple break point again.  She sprayed her normally trusty backhand wide on the third of those chances, suggesting the disarray into which her smooth game had fallen.  Hampton still needed to consolidate the break, no easy task against such a fine returner.  After a deuce hold, she held a two-game lead for the first time.

Ripping a sensational forehand down the line, Azarenka finally held without facing a break point for the first time since her second service game.  A fine inside-out backhand tailing away from Hampton extended the American’s service game to deuce, but the inspired underdog held with a shot that curled around the net post.  In a must-hold game at 2-4, Azarenka cruised through comfortably to keep the pressure on her opponent.  She leaned on her return from the ad court in the next game, earning a break point.  A wildly flailed forehand cost Azarenka the opportunity, though, and caused her to slash the air with her racket in vexation.  The unemotional Hampton may have benefited from that outburst in closing out the perilous game.

With a booming forehand return winner on Azarenka’s first serve, the American claimed two set points against the top seed.  Some rash shot selection cost her both of them before Vika extricated herself behind well-placed serves down the center line.  As she prepared to serve for the second set, Hampton called the trainer for an apparent lower back problem.  Leaving the court while Azarenka practiced her serve, she returned to open this crucial game with a drop shot that fell within inches of the net.  The top seed’s groundstrokes and returns continued to veer out of her control as she won just a single point before Hampton closed out the second set.

Azarenka needed to reassert herself early in the final set, which she did with a service hold punctuated by two clean winners.  Clearly experiencing persistent pain in her back, Hampton gallantly resisted but played into her fitter opponent’s hands before the time grew ripe.  Nevertheless, she preserved her serve through a tense game, saving a break point en route.  Seething with ill-concealed venom, Azarenka fell behind double break point on her serve as Hampton continued to rifle audacious forehands with abandon off baseline and sidelines.

With the break improbably in hand, the American continued to crumple in pain after nearly every effortful point.  Showing no signs of fatigue herself, Azarenka did her best to stretch the court and force Hampton to change direction as much as possible, which helped her in regaining the break.  Behind 2-4 soon afterwards, she could have resigned herself to the situation’s evident hopelessness.  Instead, the tireless underdog fought back to earn triple break point with another forehand barrage.

The momentum threatening to veer away from her again, Azarenka finally found some clutch first serves to erase the arrears and end the last of Hampton’s repeated challenges.  A break in the following game sealed the staggering underdog’s fate, but not before she had severely tested the defending champion.

Somewhat fortunate that the injury troubled Hampton so much in the final set, the world #1 extended her title defense into the second week of the Australian Open while revealing hints of vulnerability that will encourage future opponents.  Or perhaps they should not, for an early test often inspires competitors like Azarenka to raise their level for the rounds ahead, recognizing the necessity of sharpening their form.  Either way, Hampton should take pride and encouragement from a match that revealed her potential as both a fine shot-maker and a resilient competitor, the ideal combination of attributes for a rising star.