It was a highly anticipated match, with Victoria Azarenka being drawn to play Serena Williams in the 3rd round due to her fallen ranking from time out of the game with injury. It was deemed the “match to watch” by many, and it did not disappoint. Their head to head saw Williams lead 15 matches to 3, and having won their most recent encounter in Madrid (also a clay tournament) after saving three match points, she was the heavy favourite over Azarenka.
Williams made a strong stand in the very first point in the match, pulling off a stunning return winner to kick start the game. After a tough opening service game, Azarenka managed to hold after 3 deuces. She immediately imposed herself on Williams’ serve though, and broke to 15. Williams managed to break back instantly and consolidate, but from then on Azarenka was the dominating player of the set. Azarenka broke in the 6th game for 4-2 with a sublime drop shot, and then with help from Williams’ sluggish play held for 5-2. Williams then held to 15, finishing her game with a slice serve out wide before Azarenka held for the set, taking it 6-3 in 41 minutes.
Williams began to show signs of life at the beginning of the second set, holding to love and shouting out her signature “Come on!”. Azarenka held and soon began to push Williams once more; after an extended game she finally broke through with her return of Williams’ serve forcing an error from the American. Both women held twice more to reach 3-4 with Azarenka still up a break, but Williams had begun to truly wake up and spur herself on with encouragement. She began the 8th game of the set by winning a 16 shot rally with an incredible backhand winner, and eventually took the game on her second break point chance to level the score at four games all. The world number 1 promptly consolidated before carving out three set points on Azarenka’s serve – two were saved with good, solid serves from the Belarusian and she eventually fought to deuce. After managing to prevent Williams taking any of the previous set points, Azarenka committed a failed drop shot, giving Williams a 4th set point. At this point there was some drama - Azarenka hit a shot onto the baseline that was called out by umpire Kader Nouni, and upon inspection he decided they should replay the point. Azarenka was not happy but had no choice; Williams seized this chance to take the set 6-4 with a forehand winner to level the match.
To start the third set, Azarenka seemed to have impressively put the incident from the end of the second set from her mind as she broke on a Williams double fault before holding to take a 2-0 lead. However, Williams was not prepared to let her hard work in the second set go to waste, and so held before forcing an Azarenka forehand to fire into the tramlines to get the break back. Williams was visibly fired up, clenching her fist after almost every point before holding once more to lead for the first time in the match, 3-2. A crushing forehand return winner from Williams put Azarenka in dangerous 30-all territory in her next service game, and went on to break to claim her 4th consecutive game and lead 4-2. She then held to love before earning 2 match points on her opponent’s serve, taking the win with a stunning forehand cross court pass, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The statistics for the match were very close, with both women committing exactly 21 unforced errors each. The difference came from Williams however, who hit 20 more winners than Azarenka over the course of the match.
Despite the drama in the second set there seemed to be no hard feelings between the pair, as Williams twirled in delight with the win before jogging to the net where the two shared a respectful handshake. Next for Williams is Sloane Stephens; Williams leads their head to head 4-1 and easily won their last encounter in Madrid just weeks prior to this French Open tournament. However, Stephens has beaten Williams in a slam already at the Australian Open so she knows what it will take to win. Williams goes in as clear favourite, but it’s certainly a match to watch.