Tennis

Victoria Azarenka faces Jessica Pegula from the Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka displayed the same confident brand of hard-hitting baseline tennis that carried her to two Australian Open titles and the No. 1 ranking a decade ago, beating Jessica Pegula 6-4, 6-1 on Tuesday night to back to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

Azarenka won the 2012 and 2013 championships in Australia, but she had not been back to the last four there since then.

Now 33 and a mother — she stepped out into Rod Laver Arena wearing a jersey from her 7-year-old son’s favorite soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain — Azarenka, who is from Belarus, delivered big hit after big hit, cruising to a 3-0 -lead at 12 minutes and never really let No. 3 seed Pegula, a good friend, into the game.

“Leo doesn’t really care that I play here,” Azarenka said with a laugh. “He’s more worried about his football and when we’re going to play again. Obviously he’s watching some games, but he definitely wants his mum to be home. So a few more days here and I’ll be back.”

She might leave with a trophy in tow if she keeps playing like this.

Even when Pegula got hold of a game, she had to work so hard for it, erasing six break points before finally holding serve to get on the board. It was a far cry from the kind of success Pegula had earlier in the tournament: She came into Tuesday having dropped zero sets and 18 games in four previous matches.

“I think I can be … a perfectionist and really hard on myself,” Pegula said. “Obviously I’m upset tonight, but at the same time I think I put myself in these positions to go deep in these tournaments. I think I’ve proven that. I’ve been super consistent.”

No. 24-seeded Azarenka’s semifinal opponent will be No. 22 Elena Rybakina, the reigning Wimbledon champion, who defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4 on Tuesday afternoon. That match was delayed for about 20 minutes in the first set while the main stadium’s retractable roof was closed due to rain.

Rybakina hit 11 aces to bring her tournament-leading total to 35.

“I got all the experience at Wimbledon and it helps me now this time, here in Australia, and I know what to expect,” said Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but has represented Kazakhstan since 2018 because it offered to finance her tennis career. “It’s definitely just easier in this case.”

A three-time runner-up at the US Open, most recently in 2020, Azarenka has always played most effectively on hard courts, and it showed again tonight. She repeatedly got the better of long exchanges of forehands and backhands; Pegula made eight of the game’s first 10 unforced errors.

After a few misses, Pegula sighed, rolled her eyes, slumped her shoulders. She often looked into the stands at her coach, Davis Witt, to say something, including an exclamation about the ball speed of “It’s so … slow!”

“It hurts to beat her because I always want her to do well. But at the same time I know I have to play my best tennis… I knew from the first set that I had to bring it.” Azarenka said. “We had so many meets and I just wanted to try to stay there, take the opportunities, because she would take everything if I don’t try to win it myself.”

Pegula, 28, of New York, played in the quarterfinals in Melbourne for the third year in a row, but fell to 0-5 for her career at that point in Grand Slam tournaments.

“Hopefully it’s connected,” she said. “I definitely want to do better. I want to do more.”

Her parents own the Buffalo Bills, and Pegula wore a patch on her skirt during games with No. 3, the jersey number of player Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field during a Jan. 2 game.

Her exit Tuesday leaves No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka as the lone top-20 woman still in the bracket. On Wednesday, Sabalenka will play unseeded Donna Vekic in the quarterfinals, while No. 30 Karolina Pliskova faces unseeded Magda Linette.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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