No Rest For The Defense: Azarenka Battles Into The Semis Past Stern Kuznetsova Challenge

After a tense first set, the world #1 lunged into the semifinals.

Mortal at moments in her first four matches, defending champion Victoria Azarenka still entered her quarterfinal with two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova as a heavy favorite.  The unseeded Russian had resurrected her career this month and vastly exceeded expectations to reach the quarterfinal stage.  Although she led her overall rivalry with the world #1, Kuznetsova had lost their two 2012 meetings in straight sets.  Azarenka added a third to that ledger today with a 7-5 6-1 victory but not before a titanic battle of a first set during which the underdog showed how much far she has come so quickly in her comeback.

Setting the tone for a match of tightly contested service games was Kuznetsova’s opening hold, which she needed several deuces to survive.  That game also set the tone for her shot-making quality, though, which featured not just the expected fireworks display from her forehand but some startlingly brilliant angled backhands.  Kuznetsova becomes much more dangerous when she can strike aggressive shots with conviction from her weaker wing, and Azarenka looked frustrated as she constructed points to exploit the backhand only to see her opponent respond with winners.

The top seed’s first service game produced the only love hold that viewers would see for a long time.  After a long game resulted in another narrow Kuznetsova hold, one of the tournament’s most protracted service games ensued.  Deuce followed deuce upon deuce, neither player able to convert a game point or break point.  While Azarenka showed off her penetrating down-the-line groundstrokes, Kuznetsova continued to create angles that jerked Vika off the court.  The game became a battle of who could stay focused longer under the searing Australian sun, and, much to one’s surprise, the underdog proved that player.  Breaking the defending champion after 15 minutes, she then endured yet another deuce game on her own serve, saving a break point in the process.

Four games, 40 minutes, and a 4-1 lead for Kuznetsova.  Already the match had produced plenty of intriguing developments.  Among them was the serving quality produced by the two-time major champion, who not only cracked aces well into the triple digits on the radar but struck them on key points and found all corners of the box with them to keep an excellent returner off balance.  That trend illustrated how much Kuznetsova had improved since her period in the tennis wilderness, when her serve became more of a liability than a weapon as it often failed to climb above 90 MPH.

A fierce competitor by any standard, Azarenka held a crucial game and then leaped out to a 0-30 lead on her opponent’s serve, constantly under pressure in this match.  That pressure finally told when a double fault handed the break back and placed the set on even terms.  Having weathered the initial storm from the volatile underdog, the top seed began to look calmer.  For her part, Kuznetsova started to look a bit weary as more netted groundstrokes trickled from her racket.  Nevertheless, she erased a 40-15 lead for Azarenka in the eighth game to keep pressure on the defending champion.  When Sveta held comfortably for the first time, that pressure heightened with Vika serving to stay in the set.

Striking a breathtaking forehand angle behind Azarenka as she covered the open court, Kuznetsova moved within two points of claiming an early lead.  But the defending champion answered with a pinpoint backhand down the line, her signature shot, and thrust the set to 5-5 after another series of deuces with the clock at 66 minutes.  Having averted the potential disaster, Azarenka pounced upon the momentum shift to break Kuznetsova easily with a rare inside-in forehand winner.

Now serving for the set instead of to stay in the set, the top seed showed her heightened confidence.  Azarenka landed more first serves and stepped inside the court more effectively, although Kuznetsova continued to fire her weapons with abandon and ricochet winners off the baseline.  A brutally mistimed second-serve return at deuce handed Vika her second set point, but it disappeared with a ruthless backhand winner from her opponent.  The third time proved the charm, though, when Kuznetsova dumped a tired drop shot into the net to surrender the set after 77 minutes and 121 points.

In the inevitable lull that followed, the players traded three straight breaks to start the second set.  When Azarenka consolidated, another long deuce game developed on the Kuznetsova serve that culminated in a double fault.  That anticlimax essentially sealed the underdog’s fate and handed the defending champion her berth in the semifinals on Thursday, likely opposite Serena Williams.  Sweeping five straight games to end the match, Azarenka finished as efficiently as she could in the circumstances.

Although Azarenka again showed moments of fallibility, she deserves credit for extending her title defense to the penultimate round.  There, however, she must display significantly more convincing form to halt her recent streak of futility against Serena.  For Kuznetsova, the first set revealed that she can test one of the WTA’s leading ladies for extended stretches, while the second set suggested that she cannot do so for an entire match—yet.  In general, the tournament shed a bright ray of optimism on the start of her 2013 campaign.