Highlights from first round action at the Apia International Sydney.
BRISBANE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka rang in the new year with a new attitude and new title. It had been over two years since the former No.1 lifted a trophy, an inordinately long drought for a player that once dominated the tour alongside Serena Williams. En route to her 18th title, Azarenka lost just 17 games, tying Serena for the fewest games lost en route to the Brisbane title.
Her biggest test came in the final against No.10 Angelique Kerber, where she withstood Kerber’s early charge to run away with a 6-3, 6-1 win. This is the Vika we’re used to seeing.
“I wanted to win the title, but I didn’t feel, ‘If this doesn’t happen the world is going to end,'” Azarenka told reporters. “I think that’s when you [feel] relief. I just feel really excited and happy that I’m doing the right things. I’m excited to keep working hard. Just gives extra motivation to keep working hard and achieve better things. When you’re on the right direction, I think it’s kind of cool.”
Azarenka’s dominant run to the title immediately puts her on the short list for the Australian Open, where she is a two-time champion. But this year Melbourne will see a different Vika. It was there two years ago that Azarenka aggravated a foot injury that kickstarted her two year battle to get back to her top form.
“I was hurt the whole year actually,” Azarenka said of her 2015 season. “There was not a moment where I felt, I feel good. I have no pain. There was a lot of medication last year which made me feel crazy actually at some moments. I don’t respond well to medication.
“So it didn’t feel like this last year. It was a constant battle with pain, with my own fear. Like is it going to hurt again? I don’t want to go through that. But it took me to a point where I decided, Okay, I got to stop and try to figure out and actually change my life around the tennis court.
“I had a lot of changes last year, so it took a little bit of time to regroup, reorganize, mature a little bit, understand how to organize yourself. I’m like a freak right now. Like I’m super organized. Like my bag has to be a certain way. This has to be a certain way. I’ve never been like this. I was a little bit messy. I just didn’t care. I would throw things around. My mom was getting so pissed off with me.
“Now I found what works for me, what makes me feel comfortable, calm, at peace. So it’s good.”
After a tough off-season, Azarenka says she’s as fit as she was in her dominant 2012-2013 seasons and based on her form in Brisbane, her tennis looks locked in for 2016. “For me, it’s like you’re reading a book and you just turn the page,” Azarenka said. “That part of it was over. You just flip the page. I think that’s exciting. I can’t wait the to read the next page.”
WTA Insider sat down with Azarenka after her big win to talk about her week in Brisbane and she shed light on just how far she’s come in the last three months.
WTA Insider: What’s your reaction to this week and how it tees you up for the rest of the month?
Azarenka: I’m very excited. I think the difference between my excitement and other people’s excitement is that they want me to win and have the results. Of course I do too. But for me the excitement of doing it is really special. I really enjoy myself on the court. Whatever I do I just have fun with it. When I practice, when I’m on the court I’m really in the space that this is where I want to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else in this particular moment. I’m excited to win obviously, but the journey, the process has been way more exciting for me.
WTA Insider: The last time I talked to you was in Wuhan. You had to retire with injury there to end your season and you were pretty down.
Azarenka: That was tough. Before I even went there, it was really tough and I really shouldn’t have gone there.
WTA Insider: Did you make that trip in an attempt to qualify for Singapore?
Azarenka: Yeah, I still had a chance. Playing at the US Open I was playing well but I was still hurt. At the US Open I decided I’m going to use that trip to work for the next year. But I couldn’t skip steps. I didn’t get healthy. I tried to skip steps and you can’t do that. That was a big mistake for me to do. It was draining and I really didn’t want to be there. I think you could tell by how I was practicing. I wasn’t excited. It’s still a process. It’s still something that I’m not sure I want to take back but I definitely don’t want to repeat that.
WTA Insider: Was there a moment in the off-season when you felt it click?
Azarenka: 2015 finished for me after I started training. It really did. I didin’t want to look back. I just wanted to focus on what I can do right now that can help me. There were a lot of things that didn’t work at first.
The moment that I started to understand that I don’t know how to move right because I compensated so much that I do not know how to move the right way. I had to start from almost walking. It’s not like you’re doing rehab like you’re learning how to walk because you’re unable to walk. It’s really about being more efficient when you’re being on court where you’re not doing those extra steps and you know how to decelerate. I had no idea how to decelerate in that moment. I took a lot of work. It took a lot of focus on paying attention to every single detail, from what I eat, how much I sleep, what I do, how many practices. I had a full schedule. In my day I know exactly what I’m going to do that day.
That experience for the young players is very important to learn. It definitely puts you in the mindset that when you go on the court, that’s all you think about. Last year it was a lot of things on my mind that were not necessary when I went on the court.
WTA Insider: You’ve evolved quite a bit since I first started covering you and you’ve been open to talking about that. What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned to put you in the position you find yourself in today?
Azarenka: Listen. To listen more. Try to see situations from another person’s perspective.
WTA Insider: Do you think you didn’t do that when you were younger?
Azarenka: I come from a culture that is completely different. For people it’s difficult to understand. Whatever seemed arrogant or rude, those negative emotions, to us it doesn’t. Not that we do it on purpose. It’s just different. For me to learn that I have to sometimes understand how people are around me and observe, I didn’t do that. It was a lot about me, me, me. In an individual sport it will always be, but I just tried to open my mind a little bit and look outside of me.
I think my ego dropped a lot. I dropped it. I didn’t want to be the type of player that is so full of themselves. I want to be understanding. I want to be available. Because tennis is more than just about results to me. It’s the process. I will always feel this way because I found myself to enjoy that.
HOBART, Australia – Defending champion Heather Watson dropped just three games against Brazil’s Teliana Pereira to win, 6-3, 6-0, in the first round of the Hobart International.
A tight opening set saw the two exchange three service breaks, but Pereira’s inability to capitalize on nine of 10 break point opportunities paled in comparison to Watson’s perfect conversion rate. The Brit flew through the second set, losing just 12 points to seal up her opening round victory in just over an hour.
“I was very happy with how I played today,” she said in her post-match press conference. “At the beginning of the match, it was very competitive, and it was close because she was playing very well. That game at 2-2 to hold serve was crucial because after that I kind of went away with the match.”
Watson has good memories in Hobart, having won the tournament last year without dropping a set and with wins over three seeded players – Sloane Stephens, Roberta Vinci, and Alison Riske – before defeating Madison Brengle in the final.
“I like to see my picture on the walls!” Watson said of being the defending champion, but noted it’s not always easy coming back as the one to beat.
“I remember when I won Osaka in 2012, and I came back in 2013 I wasn’t in great form, and I was so nervous to defend all of those points; it was my first tournament defense. I didn’t deal with it well at all and I just couldn’t wait for the tournament to be over.
“This time around, I’m the total opposite. I’m really happy to be back here. As soon as I hit the first day, I was playing well. I don’t know what it is; I really like it here. I think today showed that I am enjoying the court and playing well.”
Watson will next play No.4 seed Monica Niculescu, who defeated American Christina McHale in two tight sets, 7-5, 7-5.
Earlier in the day, Eugenie Bouchard turned around an unfavorable head-to-head to dismantle Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-2, 6-1, winning in 57 minutes on Monday.
“It’s nice to get a win against her, finally!” Bouchard said after the match. “She’s a great player and I was really aware of when she was coming to net, that she’s an amazing doubles player, so I was trying to pass her.”
The Canadian had never beaten Mattek-Sands in either of their prior two encounters, but one would never know in Hobart, breaking serve six times and losing just eight points behind her first serve.
“I was feeling really solid out there. I just wanted to try to keep moving my feet – the ball can move all over the place, and that could be a bit tricky.”
Bouchard will next play No.8 seed Alison Van Uytvanck, who beat Carina Witthoeft, 6-2, 7-6(5) in her first round match.
Dominika Cibulkova was also solid in Hobart; the Slovak outgutted an in-form Johanna Konta in a topsy-turvy two-set match, 7-6(6), 7-5, to progress into the second round.
“I knew it was going to be a tough first round and I’m happy I handled it the way I did,” she told press after her win.
“I had a really good start, 5-1, and she started to be more aggressive. There were some points I got frustrated in the tiebreak – I was 1-6 down – but I came back. Today, I was really tough mentally; even when I made some mistakes I still stayed in the match.”
The big hitting former Australian Open finalist echoed Bouchard’s sentiments about the sort of windy conditions that could have derailed her big game.
“I was expecting the wind; I’ve been practicing here for three days and every day, it’s been windy. I was just focusing on the game and the things I had to do.”
Cibulkova next plays local wildcard Kimberly Birrell, who unexpectedly overcame Danka Kovinic, 6-4, 6-3.
Elsewhere around the grounds, No.9 seed Mona Barthel eased past Misaki Doi, 6-4, 6-4, to set up a second round encounter with qualifier Naomi Osaka; the 2015 WTA Rising Stars Invitational champion won a thilling three-setter over Jarmila Wolfe, 6-7(6), 7-6(8), 6-4. Lucky loser Veronica Cepede Royg lost in qualifying, but is into the second round in Hobart with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 win over Laura Pous-Tió; she next plays No.7 seed Alizé Cornet, who won on Sunday.
Brengle, seeded No.5, was runner-up in Hobart last year, but an upper respiratory illness forced her to retire against qualifier Kiki Bertens; the Dutchwoman next plays Annika Beck, who defeated Kurumi Nara in straight sets. The only other seed to go out was No.6 seed Barbora Strycova, who fell in straight sets to Johanna Larsson, who’ll next face Margarita Gasparyan for a place in the quarterfinals. Finally, ASB Classic quarterfinalist Nao Hibino won a closely-contested opening set before running away with the match against lucky loser Pauline Parmentier, 7-6(1), 6-1; the Japanese youngster will next have the opportunity to upset No.2 seed Camila Giorgi in the second round.
HOBART, Australia – No.2 seed Camila Giorgi had a tough battle to start her week at the Hobart International, but the big-hitting Italian had few problems against rising Japanese star Nao Hibino to reach her first WTA quarterfinal of the season, winning, 6-2, 6-3.
Play in Hobart suffered a slight delay to start as rain threatened to wash out the opening matches. Known for her effortless power, Giorgi made up for lost time in style against Hibino, maintaining a healthy 68% on first serves, and only dropping serve once per set.
“Every match is different,” Giorgi said after the match. “The conditions are different. The important thing is to go on so you can get better.”
Hibino had been looking strong to start the season, having already made the quarterfinals of the ASB Classic, but Giorgi – who pushed Angelique Kerber to three sets at the Brisbane Internaitonal – was too strong over the one hour, 11 minute match.
Giorgi next plays the winner of the second round match between No.8 seed Alison Van Uytvanck and Eugenie Bouchard, who lost just three games in her first round match against former nemesis Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
“It’s just a match, so it doesn’t matter who I play. I will be focused on me, like always.”
More to come…