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Azarenka wins but laments lack of fans

Former champion Victoria Azarenka started her campaign at the Western & Southern Open with an emphatic 6-2 6-3 victory over No 15 seed Donna Vekic, in just over an hour, but misses the fans.

I feel like they create an energy. Those kind of magical moments always happen when there is a crowd, and it can swing each way. I love that energy I feel like you can feed off. Sometimes you have the whole stadium against you and you kind of feed off of that, as well. Victoria Azarenka

It was the Belarusian’s first WTA victory of 2020, the two-time Australian Open champion having lost her opening match in Acapulco to Tamara Zidansek, and was beaten last week by Venus Williams.

“I’m very happy honestly to win a match. It’s been like a year or so,” Azarenka told reporters after the match. “I haven’t played a lot, but it’s still like finally to get over that mid-hump a little bit and to be able to close out the match and stay strong throughout the match was super important to me.”

The former World No 1 kicked off her 3rd tournament of the year with a convincing win over a listless Vekic, the World No 24, with the two players posting nearly inverse stat sheets for the match, as Azarenka recorded 21 winners to 14 unforced errors, and served 7 aces.

Breaking serve 5 times, Azarenka took advantage of 7 double faults from the Croatian No 2, who also hit 14 winners to 20 unforced.

“Today was a day that really showed that what I have been working on, can put it in match situation, and I just want to continue to keep going this way,” Azarenka added, lamenting the absence of fans in the stands who she believes are a key part of the tennis experience.

“I feel like they create an energy,” Azarenka said on Saturday, after beating Vekic on an eerily empty Grandstand court at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. “Those kind of magical moments always happen when there is a crowd, and it can swing each way.

“I love that energy I feel like you can feed off.

“Sometimes you have the whole stadium against you and you kind of feed off of that, as well.”

The empty Grandstand at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where tarpaulins replace fans

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Players are having to adjust, however, as tennis returns amid the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the sport to a halt in March.

The NTC’s biggest courts, the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums, are not being used this week, and Azarenka hopes the USTA will not try to fill them with virtual fans when the US Open begins on 31 August.

“I hope they don’t put fake people, because that’s going to be super weird,” Azarenka said. “So I hope that’s not going to happen.”

Azarenka added that the ‘virtual fans’ displayed electronically at NBA games in that league’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida, look ‘super creepy’.

The near stands are covered with tarpaulins with the New York skyline depicted on them, one of several things that are very different for the players in this unprecedented year of the coronavirus pandemic.

Electronic line-calling by Hawk-Eye Live is being used instead of line judges to reduce the number of people on site during the pandemic, with the system making all the calls, with familiar touches like the recorded voices that shout ‘out’, ‘fault’ or ‘foot fault’.

This has eliminated the challenge system as the system has become both judge and jury on determining whether a ball is in or out here.

At the US Open, however, the only exceptions will be on its two biggest courts – Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, which will continue with line judges to make line calls.

Ball kids have been reduced from 6 to 3 per court, and these are not allowed to handle player towels.

Effectively, apart from 3 ball kids, the courts only have the chair umpire, who calls the scores after the electronic system makes the line call.

All players competing this week, as well as in next week’s US Open, are living in a biosecurity bubble, following strict safety protocols onsite and at the official tournament hotel.

In other results on Saturday, Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova toppled 9th seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-5 7-6(6), while in another upset, Amanda Anisimova upended countrywoman Alison Riske, 6-3 6-3.

Sunday sees the top two seeds in action as No 1 Karolina Pliskova faces Veronika Kudermetova and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin takes on French veteran Alize Cornet.

“No matter who is playing, no matter who stayed at home, I think you just always start from zero,” observes Pliskova at the absence of 4 of the top 10 women. “I think it benefits a bit the lower-ranked players.

“We should be just happy that we have the opportunity to play these tournaments now. And that we finally could leave home.”



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