Victory for Victoria: Azarenka nips Kuznetsova to reach Sony Ericsson finals

Sony Ericsson Open
By Matthew Zemek, April 5th, 2009

Even as she spent the past three months climbing the ladder in the world of women’s tennis, Victoria Azarenka lacked a really big achievement to show for her excellence. Now, another milestone can be crossed off the Belorussian’s checklist.

A promising 2009 season just got better for Azarenka, who showed steely nerves to hold off Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first semifinal of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. The 11th-seeded Azarenka held off her eighth-seeded Russian opponent, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, in 2 hours and 41 minutes of riveting action at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

Azarenka has been one of the more impressive performers on the WTA Tour this season. At the Australian Open, she won the first set from Serena Williams before illness forced her to retire with a 6-3, 2-4 lead in that fourth-round match. Newly fresh for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Azarenka stormed to the semifinals before doubles partner Vera Zvonareva knocked her off. Azarenka cracked the top 10 of the rankings for the first time in her career, but a milestone achievement proved elusive.

Until now.

This piece of semifinal success is meaningful for Azarenka because it gives the teenager the largest single-event paycheck of her young career (just over $300,000), but the value of today’s breakthrough is found in other more significant facts as well.

On an immediate level, Azarenka managed to wipe away the ugly memories created in her last meeting against Kuznetsova at this event. One year ago, Azarenka rolled to a 6-1, 5-2 lead in Miami and had a match point for the round of 16. So close to the finish line, Azarenka succumbed to frail nerves, as the increasingly dispirited 18-year-old watched “The Kooze” reel off 11 straight games to take the third-round encounter, 1-6, 7-5, 6-0.

In this match, Azarenka teetered at times, but never fell off the edge. Having blown a one-set lead with an indifferent display midway through the match, Azarenka regrouped in set three and served for the match at 5-4. Down love-30, she nailed a first serve to the corner of the service box and then played incredible defense to win two pulse-pounding rallies, one of them with a gorgeous running forehand passing shot. Brought to match point, Azarenka found herself in a position similar to a year ago against Kuznetsova, and while the result was indeed different this time around, it took awhile for the Belorussian to defeat her demons.

Kuznetsova saved that first match point with a massive forehand, and then broke for 5-all when Azarenka missed a backhand at deuce and then double-faulted on break point. In a handful of points, a nightmare came rushing to the surface of memory. Azarenka had to regroup when she failed to serve out the match.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what she did.

Azarenka’s groundstrokes stabilized in the eleventh game of the final set, and Kuznetsova lost the momentum she had gained a few minutes before. Azarenka broke for 6-5, and after seeing Kuznetsova save two more match points with terrific shotmaking, Azarenka closed the door by hitting deep shots to the Kuznetsova backhand, which broke down under pressure. As a final off-pace Kuznetsova backhand stuck the middle of the net, Azarenka exulted.

In a moment of profound recognition, a young woman knew that she had not only put away a nemesis in a former house of horrors; Victoria Azarenka also realized that she had reached her first Premier Mandatory (formerly Tier I) final on the WTA Tour, by far the biggest moment of her tennis life to date. In Saturday afternoon’s final, Azarenka-now assured of a No. 8 slot in next week’s WTA rankings-will play the winner of tonight’s Williams sister showdown. Even if she fails to take down Venus or Serena, Azarenka will be able to say that she played in the championship match of a prestigious tournament. With more breakthroughs like this one, an up-and-comer in the women’s game can accumulate the experiences needed to forge a top-flight career.

There are no guarantees for any tennis professional, but the supremely noteworthy element about Victoria Azarenka’s tennis career is that it now has a chance to become great.

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