Only 22, just recently a Grand Slam champion and ranked No. 1 for the first time, Victoria Azarenka is still learning to think like a top player.
So trailing by a set and one point from being down 5-0 in the second at the French Open on Monday, Azarenka’s mind was filled with ”a mix of things.”
”Sometimes I felt it was not my day,” she explained. ”Sometimes I thought, `Yeah, maybe I still fight, I still have a chance.’ Sometimes it was like, `You know what? Forget it. I don’t want to do it.”’
And yet she did do it, listening to the most positive of those voices and beginning the climb back from a daunting deficit with a gutsy second-serve ace, of all things. Showing how far she’s come from the petulance of earlier in her career, Azarenka took 12 of the last 14 games to beat Alberta Brianti of Italy 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2.
”Before, maybe I would just give up and go home. I was kind of thinking there was a flight straight to Minsk,” said Azarenka, who was born in the capital of Belarus. ”But I didn’t want to leave too soon.”
She most certainly did not want to become the only top-seeded woman to lose in the first round of the French Open since the tournament started allowing foreign entrants in 1925. But she needed every bit of fortitude to right things while overcoming a whopping 60 unforced errors, far more than her 32 winners – a terrible ratio for anyone, let alone a player who considers herself a title contender.
”Bad days happen,” Azarenka said with a shrug. ”Unfortunately, today I had way more mistakes than I usually do.”
The top-seeded man, Novak Djokovic, limited his miscues to when he spoke to the crowd in French after a victory Monday, never even facing a break point while beating Potito Starace of Italy 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-1.
”It wasn’t that successful,” Djokovic said – referring to his on-court postmatch interview, not his play, as he began his bid to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title.
”I’m trying to take it slowly. I’m running out of words,” he said. ”Who knows? Maybe (in the) next two weeks, I’ll learn something more.”
It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he’s around long enough to face 16-time major champion Roger Federer in the semifinals. They met in Paris at that stage a year ago, when Federer ended Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.
The sport’s other leading man, defending champion Rafael Nadal, starts his try for a record seventh French Open title on Tuesday, facing Simone Bolelli of Italy. Day 3 also features fourth-seeded Andy Murray, 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and three-time major winner Maria Sharapova.
Williams normally leads the way for the United States at big tournaments, but now she will be trying to keep up her end of the bargain: All 10 American women who played Sunday or Monday won, giving the country its largest contingent in the second round at Roland Garros since 11 made it in 2003.
Other winners Monday included defending champion Li Na and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, who next meets seven-time major champion Venus Williams.
Federer dealt with a few blips, getting broken once in each set, including when serving for the match for the first time. But he defeated Tobias Kamke of Germany 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 to tie Jimmy Connors’ Open era record of 233 Grand Slam match wins.
”They’re never easy, those first rounds, you know. Last thing you want is to go down a set or (get) in a tough situation, but I was able to stay ahead in the first set. Had bits of ups and downs on my serve,” Federer said. ”But overall, I’m happy I’m through. That’s what I look at in the end. Sometimes you have to come through when you’re not playing your very best.”
Azarenka managed precisely that against Brianti, a 32-year-old whose career prize money of about $1 million pales next to the more than $4.5 million her decade-younger opponent has earned in the past five months.
But with Azarenka spraying shots this way and that, Brianti took advantage. The Italian later acknowledged being thrown off, though, by what happened when the match was hers for the taking. Already up a set and 4-0 in the second, the 105th-ranked Brianti held a break point and was one point from serving for the monumental upset.
Azarenka called that a ”really miserable … moment.” Instead of folding, she fought her way into the match, starting with an ace on a second serve that brought the score to deuce. There would be another break point to save seconds later, and Azarenka did so with a drop shot.
It’s the latest sign of a more mature Azarenka, one who has the skill to stay near the top of tennis for years, so long as she keeps her wits about her.
At the 2009 French Open, in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of Azarenka’s career, she was the one who let a big lead slip away against the top-seeded woman, Dinara Safina, falling apart with some double-faults and flashes of temper. After taking the first set 6-1, Azarenka lost the next two.
The next year at Roland Garros, Azarenka lost 6-1, 6-2 in the first round, then was fined $4,000 for failing to attend a news conference afterward.
During Monday’s rough patch, her newest mentor, 2006 Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo, sat calmly in the player’s guest seats at Court Philippe Chatrier. Almost motionless, she was watching and presumably waiting for Azarenka to take control.
When Azarenka finally ended it, only then did Mauresmo rise from her seat and punch the air and let out a yell of excitement.
”She managed to turn the match around at the last minute,” Mauresmo said, ”by digging deep and finding the resolve to win.”