Fourth seed and 2013 Internazionali BNL d'Italia finalist Victoria Azarenka kicks off her campaign in Rome against Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinalist Irina-Camelia Begu. Azarenka withdrew in Madrid before her third round encounter with qualifier Louisa Chirico with a back injury. The two-time Australian Open champion received a bye in the opening round as she is seeded fourth. Begu ranked at 35 in the world will be looking to be seeded for the French Open and ranked at 34 may be enough as Maria Sharapova who is currently serving a provisional suspension and Flavia Pennetta who retired last year will not be competing at the second major of the year.
Begu defeated Russian Margarita Gasparyan 6-3, 6-0 to set up this second round meeting with Azarenka. Unfortunately for the Romanian, Azarenka leads their head-to-head 5-0 and Begu's solitary set against the Belarusian on clay was here in Rome at the last 16 stage last year when she lost 6-4, 5-7, 6-1.
Azarenka's resurgent year
Azarenka has had an impressive 2016 with a 26-1 win-loss record and she has picked up three titles already. She won the Brisbane International title, which was her first title since 2013 and she defeated Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber in the final and she completed the Sunshine double by winning the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and Miami Open defeating Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova in both finals respectively.
The key for Azarenka to win a grand slam title for the first time in three years is to stay healthy. She had an injury-plagued season in 2014 and some parts of 2015 but last year she managed to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and US Open.
The good news for Azarenka in this clash with Begu, is that the she has already played two matches on clay against Laura Robson and Alize Cornet albeit the conditions in Madrid are at altitude and the climate in the Eternal City are at sea-level similar to the conditions at the French Open.
Azarenka and Begu have met twice on clay courts with Azarenka defeating Begu in the final of the now defunct tournament in Marbella back in 2011 to win her only clay court title and aforementioned Azarenka defeated Begu last year in Rome in three sets. They have played twice on hard courts which Azarenka won 6-1, 6-3 in Tokyo in 2011 and in Linz 6-2, 6-1 in 2012. Their only meeting on a grass court was at the 2012 Olympic Games in London which Azarenka won 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 in the second round
Begu was one of four Romanians to make the quarter-finals in the Spanish capital last week and she lost to her compatriot and eventual champion Simona Halep in three sets.
If Azarenka's back is not hampering her performance in Rome, she should win this match comfortably but if she is not feeling at 100% then Begu has her chance to get her first victory over Vika.
Prediction: Azarenka to win in three entertaining sets.