By Ros Satar
(June 16, 2015) The Birmingham field this year has been boosted by a couple of debutantes who certainly shone on a rare sunny day in the Midlands. First up was a pumped looking Victoria Azarenka, and if her exertions while waiting to walk out onto court were anything to go by, the former World No. 1 was more than up for this challenge.
Except her opponent Varvara Lepchenko had other ideas, racing out to a 4-0 lead, as Azarenka perhaps was over-pushing in her eagerness to make her mark, before Azarenka finally started to find the court, to put it bluntly.
From 4-0 up to coming out on the wrong side of a momentum-switching tie-break must have been galling to the American, as Azarenka powered on, and although she was pegged back by Lepchenko after she surged out to a 3-0 lead of her own, it was not enough to stop Azarenka making a winning start 7-6, 6-4.
The Belarusian can always be counted upon to give a full and frank assessment of her time out on court.
“I felt that I didn’t really start well. I wasn’t really there. I was missing too much,” Azarenka said. “Of course she played well and forced me to do a lot of things but I just didn’t feel that I put in enough energy or concentration. Something wasn’t quite working.”
She continued: “I just tried to stay positive as much as possible and try and fight through it. I think that was one thing that I did really well today. I made something happen in the important moments and tried to change the flow of the match in my favour.
Azarenka has been marching back up the rankings but there are still signs of rustiness, in closing out matches for example.
“I think I still have to sharpen my game, and as a perfectionist I’m always looking to improve.”
Meanwhile Simona Halep needed to sharpen up her own game after a clay court season she would have reasonably expected to sail through, Instead though, save for her run to the semi-final of Stuttgart, it was nowhere near a par with her run to the Madrid and Roland Garros finals. She was bounced out of Madrid, yet dealt with the loss maturely. She did better in Rome, but her French Open points were lost in the red clay as she fell in the second round.
She was up against British wildcard Naomi Broady, hoping to lift the crowd’s spirits after British No. 1 Heather Watson was ousted in two tight sets by Aleksandra Krunic, whose match sharpness coming through qualifiers proved to be too much for Watson on her comeback from injury at Roland Garros.
Give Broady her credit, she hung tough with Halep, making the top seed work hard for the break, but once she did, the Romanian went on a sprint through the next six games in a row. It was too much for the Brit to come back from, although she managed to at least get back on the board in the second set.
“I had a really tough opponent today. She played really well and her first serve is very big – it’s not easy to return her serve,” Halep said. “The first set was really tough, and I can say I was a little bit lucky to get the break in the end, but overall I’m happy how I did and that I could win this match today.
“It’s the first tournament of the year for me on grass, and it’s not easy to adapt my game on grass, but last year I had good results on it and I come here with confidence. I believe I have my chances.”
Play continues in Edgbaston from 11am BST.
Ros Satar is a British sports journalist covering tennis, and can also be found at Britwatch Sports.