January 20, 2015 / 8:09 AM / 4 years ago

Azarenka revels in role of Melbourne dark horse

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Injury is a cruel mistress for any professional sportsperson, a fact no more evident than on Tuesday when Victoria Azarenka faced Sloane Stephens in the first round of the Australian Open.

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates winning a point over Sloane Stephens of the U.S. during their women's singles first round match at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Azarenka, after all, was a two-time champion on the Melbourne Park courts, while Stephens was the women she beat in the semi-finals two years ago, after the American had already beaten Serena Williams in the previous round.

Poor form had not forced the pair, undoubtedly two of the stronger players in the women’s draw, together in a surreal first round clash on Hisense Arena. It was injury.

The 25-year-old Belarusian entered the season opening grand slam ranked 44th, a major step down for a woman who had held the number one spot in the world for almost a year.

A foot injury that worsened after last year’s Australian Open cost her the first half of the season, while a knee injury accounted for much of the second, with both afflictions restricting her to just nine tournaments in 2014.

Ranking points disappeared and she tumbled down to a season-ending 32nd, her lowest position since 2006, while she came into the tournament unranked at a grand slam for the first time since the 2007 U.S. Open.

Azarenka, who lost her only warmup match in Brisbane earlier this month, however, demonstrated in her 6-3 6-2 victory how dangerous a floater she will be in the draw.

“Since I missed so much, I think it’s kind of what it is,” Azarenka told reporters of her possible tournament path after she set up a second round clash with former world number one Caroline Wozniacki.

“You just accept that and you just try to do the best as possible. So if you play against seed or unseeded player, it’s going to be tough.

“You have got to be ready 100 percent every day no matter who you’re facing.”

Azarenka was ready for the 21-year-old American, who she has now beaten for the third successive year at Melbourne Park, the only place they have met on the WTA circuit.

In the past she has attacked Stephens’ forehand and dictated from the back of the court, however, on Tuesday she also put pressure on the American’s backhand and approached the net, winning 11 of her 12 points from there.

“I felt pretty good. I think from the beginning I started to be pretty focused and just maintained that intensity,” Azarenka said.

“The important is just to try to control the game as much as you can... (but) there is still a lot to build from here.”

Editing by John O'Brien

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