Victoria Azarenka produced a brilliant display of tennis to dispatch world No. 3 Jessica Pegula and reach the Australian Open semi-finals.
The two-time Australian Open champion, now ranked 24th in the world, rolled back the years to beat Pegula, one of the most consistent players on the women’s tour over the past few seasons and remains favourite, 6- 4 6-1 in just one hour and 37 minutes.
It marks Azarenka’s best performance in Melbourne since winning the second of her two Australian Open crowns in 2013 as she advances to a second grand slam semi-final since 2020.
“It hurts to beat her because I always want her to do well,” Azarenka said in her post-match interview. “But I know I have to play my best tennis because she’s been so consistent. We had so many matches … I just had to hang in there and take opportunities.
“I’m very proud that I executed my game plan really well, and it’s so great to be in the semifinals of another grand slam.
“Last year my tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t there mentally. I played with a lot of fear and anxiety – it’s hard to make the right decision when you’re feeling anxious and hesitant, so I tried to push myself in the break.
“Sometimes when you achieve great success, you become conservative about trying new things, so this season I thought, ‘I want to try new things, put my head down and work hard’.”
For Pegula, who is still waiting to reach her first grand slam semi-final, there will be a lot to think about in the wake of her defeat, especially given the way her standards dropped so dramatically in the second set.
“She got off to a really slow start,” Barbara Schett, a former pro and current tennis expert for Eurosport, told CNN.
“At the beginning of the match, it was Azarenka who dominated, so Pegula was the one who reacted more, but that’s not her style of play.
“She likes to be the one in charge, and today that was not the case at all. I thought it was a good comeback in the first set, when she got to 5-4 she was back on serve, but then she panicked again, she didn’t like the conditions, she kept saying to her coach: ‘ I do it. do not know what to do.
“‘The balls are so slow, I feel like I can’t hit with a lot of pace.’ So she was more focused on herself and also in the second set you could tell in her body language that she wasn’t feeling well and I thought, last year she played Ash Barty in the quarter-finals and she only won two games.
“Maybe it was also in the back of her mind that she wanted to do really, really well this year and she just got overwhelmed or the pressure actually started to kick in.”
Azarenka, of course, knows what it takes to win a grand slam, having won twice before in Melbourne in 2012 and 2013. Pegula, on the other hand, has never reached the semi-finals of a slam before and appeared nervous and overwhelmed by the occasion.
Many expected Pegula, the world No. 3, to dominate with her powerful hitting, but she was barely able to get a foothold in the match early as Azarenka raced into a 3-0 lead in the first set thanks to some booming, precise fundamentals.
Pegula finally got on the scoreboard with a hard-fought, hard-fought hold of serve, saving five break points in a game that lasted more than 10 minutes.
However, she quickly began to cut a frustrated figure on the court, seemingly trying to play within herself in an attempt to just keep her shots in the court. At one point, she looked towards her box and mumbled under her breath, shrugging her shoulders in confusion as she tried to find a response to Azarenka’s early brilliance.
With Azarenka serving at 4-2 ahead, Pegula had an excellent opportunity to break back but the Belarusian held on to fend off two break points with a pair of flawless shots to maintain her narrow first set lead.
But with Azarenka serving for the first set at 5-3, a combination of nerves and much-improved hitting from Pegula finally broke the 33-year-old for the first time in the match to keep the opening set alive.
But any hopes Pegula had of turning the set around were quickly banished by Azarenka, who immediately broke back to take the first set.
Apart from the small serving blip, it was a sublime opening set of tennis from Azarenka and reminiscent of the form that helped her win her first grand slam Down Under more than a decade ago.
Things went from bad to worse for Pergula in the second set as Azarenka held and then broke serve to open up a 2-0 lead.
Pegula looks confused after another grounder went long and this time she started talking and gesticulating towards her box with increased frustration as she punched a ball onto the court in anger.
Perhaps the breakout was the stress relief Pegula needed as she quickly began hitting her shots with more power and precision, breaking Azarenka back at the first time of asking.
But in a game that continued to ebb and flow, Azarenka broke back immediately and then held serve to open a commanding 4-1 lead and place one foot in the semi-finals.
Azarenka has made a name for herself as one of the better returners in the women’s game and has so far nullified Pegula’s serve, a weapon that has given the American so much joy in recent seasons.
Pegula now looked beaten as Azarenka began to wear her down from the baseline; if Pegula had hoped that her opponent’s level would drop at some point, perhaps at this moment she realized that it would not happen.
She tried a few desperate shots in an attempt to mix things up, but a particularly poor drop shot was pounced on and dispatched with confidence by Azarenka.
Azarenka then broke Pegula for the fourth game in a row and thus the final leg of her decision to take a 5-1 lead and then promptly served out the match.
‘Vika’ joked in her post-match interview that she was keen to get home to her son – who Azarenka admitted is more into football than tennis – and her new dog.
If Azarenka continues to play like she did on Tuesday, then they’ll probably have to wait until next week for mom to come home.