WHAT HAPPENED: It took two and a half hours and a few close calls, but two-time US Open singles finalist Victoria Azarenka survived a tough first-round contest versus an opponent whom she had never played before.
Azarenka, seeded an unfamiliar No. 16, played in the Grandstand, a familiar arena for her early years. The former Australian Open champion narrowly edged powerful left-hander Misaki Doi of Japan, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, with her experience in pivotal points pulling her through.
"I just wanted to stay in the moment and just be as aggressive as possible," Azarenka, whose 36 winners offset 47 errors, said in a post-match interview.
The first set was up for grabs as both players went for their shots and held serve. Doi, who had never beaten a Top 20 opponent in nine previous attempts, ripped one forehand winner after another, which proved to be her bread and butter play. And after Azarenka threw in three double faults in the breaker, Doi claimed her first set off of a Grand Slam champion and was likely playing her best tennis. The Japanese No. 3 was one set closer to accomplishing another feat: winning her first main draw match here.
The second set had seesaw-style service breaks, but it was Azarenka who seemed the more energetic of the two. When it was 6-7, 3-2 for Azarenka, each player had won 63 points. But this time it was Azarenka who pulled ahead, breaking to go up 4-2 and 5-3 before converting one final break to level the match at one set a piece.
“She played really well and played really good on the important moments," Azarenka said. "But I kept fighting and I just turned things around."
Pumped to claim the third set, Azarenka started moving her opponent from side to side, getting more first serves in and playing effective defensive tennis. With a little help from Doi, the world No. 17 raced to a 5-1 lead. After two of the match’s longest games comprised of slices, net approaches and flat ground strokes, Azarenka found herself two games away from the win. Moving better than she had in previous sets, she teased errors out of Doi and forced a netted return on her second match point.
WHAT IT MEANS: After missing most of the 2014 season due to various injuries, such as her knee and foot, Azarenka will continue her quest to claim her first US Open title. In the second round, Azarenka plays American Christina McHale, who won in a third-set tiebreak over South Africa's Chanelle Scheepers.
"I feel good," Azarenka said. "I will stay here as long as it takes. It’s been a tough year."
THE QUESTION: Can Azarenka save her best tennis for the later rounds? Do you think she can make another final here in Flushing Meadows despite her physical ailments?