US Open: Azarenka defeats Kuzmova in return to NYC
Victoria Azarenka had a lot to prove in her return to the US Open and did not disappoint Monday night. The two-time finalist defeated Viktoria Kuzmova who challenged her greatly in the second set to win 6-3, 7-5 at Louis Armstrong Stadium at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center. It was her first time back on the hard courts in New York and a more comfortable feeling in her debut on the new court.
The battle for the two Europeans began with the need to get a great start to the last major of the season. For the former world number one, getting herself in gear would be a great push for her confidence after falling out of San Jose with an injury followed by short stints at Montreal and Cincinnati. While she gained four wins in total over the span of a month, the 29-year-old meeting against Kuzmova had to go smoothly or face an embarrassing exit. The Slovakian had three wins in Ohio before going out against Kristina Mladenovic. Her being out of qualifications in New Haven last week gave her time to prepare for the big one and bring a challenge to her first round opponent.
After facing Azarenka’s serve to love, she herself matched the same statement to begin her serve in the match. It was no doubt a surprise to the Belorussian who was back at the Open for the first time in three years. She didn’t let the absence get to her racking up another victory on serve in the third. The Slovakian dug in well to secure the fourth as she held serve to show her opponent her level of tenacity.
It was tested in the sixth after Azarenka held again in the previous game taking the lead on a lost point by Kuzmova before getting the lead back. A forehand error got the former world number one to deuce where she needed only one try to score the AD point with the Slovakian under pressure committing a double fault. With a two-game lead, the 29-year-old went back to her reliable service tactics that resulted in winning again on deuce for a 5-2 stance.
Kuzmova was on the edge of going a set down serving in the eighth where she got deep in the court to catch Azarenka off the mark. The 20-year-old got the early lead but gave the Belorussian too much comfort where she reached set point on the second serve winning with a sliced return completing 38 minutes. While her second serve came at the right moment, it was dismal overall scoring just 38 percent on it while the first serve did all the work. It scored her 11 winners and four aces and 11 winners which was only the start of her quest to get through the opening round.
Things began to get serious again where Kuzmova once again showed her worth with the previous set in her rearview mirror. She opened scoring with Azarenka having to trail each time. When they got even at two-all, the fifth became Azarenka’s chance to go for the break and retrieve control. The Slovakian played strong on deuce where ultimately held once more to keep the lead going her way. They went to ten games with both Kuzmova and Azarenka unwilling to lose on their service games.
The extension of the set sent the pressure into the 20-year-old who made small mistakes that gave the Belorussian room to attack. She had two break points to work with a well-placed forehand winner to serve for the match in the 12th. The game was well in the hands of Azarenka who landed a couple winners that gave her two match points to move into the second round after 1 hour and 29 minutes.
“I think the first rounds are never easy, especially when you’re playing someone you’ve never played before,” Azarenka said to Andrew Krasny after the match. “You try to figure out a couple of moments of what your opponents do but I think she served really well. She didn’t give me many opportunities on the returns but I stayed tough, served well, served smart and I’m in the second round of the US Open.” She’ll go into Wednesday facing Daria Gavrilova in the round of 64 in hopes to continue her quest to get back to where she belongs.