WTA Rome: Furious finish by Victoria Azarenka sends Elina Svitolina crashing out
Photo: Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

In one of the matches of the year, Victoria Azarenka saved a match point in knocking out two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 in two hours, 14 minutes in the second round of the Italian Open.

The blockbuster second round encounter was delayed multiple times by rain in which Svitolina, seeking to become the first player to win three straight titles in the Italian capital since Conchita Martinez won four in a row from 1993-96, rode an early break to take the first set.

Azarenka built a double break lead at 4-1 before the rain hit again and after the resumption of play, closed out the set in relatively easy fashion before falling behind 5-2 in the decider. The Belarusian won the final five games, including saving match point at 5-3 down.

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Svitolina claims topsy-turvy opening set

It was Svitolina who made the stronger start, holding to open the match before taking a 15-30 lead on Azarenka's first service game only to see the Belarusian escape trouble. She was broken the next time she toed the line, the Ukranian using her backhand and moving forward to put away a volley on break point for a 3-1 lead.

The fifth seed, seeking her 11th straight win in Rome, was unable to keep her advantage as Azarenka broke back and rallied from 0-40 to hold for 3-3. Saving two more break points in the seventh game, Svitolina got the decisive break in the tenth game when Azarenka pulled a forehand wide to take the opening set.

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Azarenka dominates rain-delayed second set

The first rain delay came after the opening game of the second set, which saw Azarenka break, aided by a pair of double faults from Svitolina. Following the resumption of play, the fifth seed broke back, but was on the back foot shortly thereafter, the Belarusian firing off winners and claiming two more breaks for a 4-1 edge.

Another rain delay, this one lasting for more than an hour, keeping the players off court for more than an hour, halted play again and when the two combatants returned to the court, it was Azarenka who continued to dominate proceedings, closing out a run of five games on the trot by winning 20 of the final 23 points in the set to push the match to a decider.

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Belarusian storms back, saves match point to take final five games for victory

The outcome of the match was anyone's guess, but Svitolina attempted to answer that question early in the third set as she raced out to a 3-0 double break lead, punctuated by a backhand winner to close out the third game.

Each player broke twice to set the Ukranian up at 5-2 and serving for the match: what happened next will long haunt the two-time defending champion. At match point she mishit a swinging volley and was broken when Azarenka re-directed a backhand down the line.

After a hold to love to trim the deficit to 5-4, the world number 51 broke at the second time of asking in the tenth game after a volley that she merely tried to get out of the way of. Now at 5-5, Azarenka battled through a long game to hold to go in front 6-5.

Facing the pressure of serving to stay in the match, Svitolina cracked under the circumstances. Having to stare down two match points, she saved the first with a winner, but Azarenka pummeled one final backhand to take the second and close out a remarkable comeback.

Azarenka post-match thoughts

Following her third win in as many matches against Svitolina, Azarenka said "it was such a dramatic match - it was a lot of breaks and stuff with the rain, and that was quite difficult to deal with. But i'm happy I was able to just block it out, play my game, survive the match point, and then pick it up from there to play great tennis.

"Overall it was a high quality match. I'm happy with my performance, and i'm happy to be through and i'll try to get better in the tournament. Right now i'm looking at the overall big picture and trying to improve eevry aspect of my game. Obviously, movement is very important on clay court, and I feel like i'm getting better and more accustomed to clay. Especially this year, I feel a lot more at ease on clay. I'm happy about that".

The Belarusian next faces the winner of the match between Garbine Muguruza and Danielle Collins: "I played Collins this year, in Acapulco actually. It'll be interesting to play her on clay - we've never played there. And I played Garbine in Monterrey, which unfortuantely I wasn't able to finish the match, so either match will be challenging for me, but i'm looking forward to the challenge".