Victoria Azarenka, who has won the title twice at Melbourne Park and came from behind to stun Madison Keys, 1-6 6-2 6-1, on Friday, will meet Zhu Lin in the Round of 16, who knocked Maria Sakkari, the No 6 seed, out of contention, 7-6(3) 1-6 6-4, in a match that lasted well past midnight.
I try to be more open-minded, the older I get. When I was 20 years old, I'd come here and just lock onto tennis. I try to find the little things off court that keeps me happy and sane. Photography has been one of them, and riding an electric bike around Melbourne city has been pretty fun. Sometimes I arrive with my bike and people are like, 'Oh it's Azarenka!’ Victoria Azarenka
Azarenka, the World No 24, maintained her unbeaten record against the 10th-seeded American in a contest between two big hitters at prime time.
The last woman to defend the Melbourne Park title in 2012-13, Azarenka has made a sharp start, with a straight-sets passage past the AO 2020 champion, Sofia Kenin from the USA, and a ruthless 6-1 6-0 demolition of Argentine Nadia Podoroska.
The 33-year-old held a 3-0 record over Keys, but the American got off to the better start on this occasion, breaking with a stunning backhand down the line to land a 2-0 advantage, and then winning 4 games in a row to pocket a clinical first set, courtesy of 14 rattling winners.
Azarenka then began to get the measure of the American, seizing the initiative with a collection of extended rallies in which her extensive defensive skills came to the fore as she coaxed errors from the Keys racket for a 3-1 lead in the second set.
Using her astute point construction to scorch through 8 successive games, Azarenka stamped her authority on the contest and, at 4-0, she produced a backhand stop-volley on the stretch that was truly magical.
“Madison was playing great from the start of the year, made semis here last year, so I knew she’d feel comfortable,” reflected Azarenka later. “She came out firing from all corners and I felt I was just rushing. I couldn’t get into my rhythm.
“I just fought for every point and managed to turn it around. It worked really well. She’s a great player, great friend, we’ll always play tough matches, so it’s never easy.”
Keys was let down by a ratio of 27-39 winners to unforced errors, while Azarenka was efficient off both wings, even if her serve lacked bite in the opener.
Landing just 50% of first serves left the former World No 1 adrift in the first set, but she boosted that number to 60% and 64% in the next two acts.
World No 86 Zhu Lin awaits Azarenka in the Last 16, after the Chinese got the better of Sakkari, and the Belarusian must be fancying her chances in the second week.
“I try to be more open-minded, the older I get,” she said. “When I was 20 years old, I’d come here and just lock onto tennis.
“I try to find the little things off court that keeps me happy and sane. Photography has been one of them, and riding an electric bike around Melbourne city has been pretty fun.
“Sometimes I arrive with my bike and people are like, ‘Oh it’s Azarenka!’ ”
The defeat is a disappointment for 27-year old Keys, though, who had made such a good start.
Just as she had last year, Keys came into Melbourne on one of her hot streaks, and she rejuvenated her career with a 10-match winning streak that took her from the Adelaide 250 title to the Australian Open semi-finals.
This year, Keys went unbeaten at the United Cup as she helped the US to win the inaugural title, but her winning streak was halted at 7 by a familiar nemesis.
While Keys slammed 14 winners to 8 unforced errors in the first set, during which she impressed with her movement as well as her trademark power, in the second and third sets, she racked up 31 miscues to only 13 winners.
“I felt, like, in the first set I was looking for solution without doing my basics,” Azarenka said. “That was, like, running before I actually have to do something. I was trying to fix something that I didn’t have a foundation of.
“I actually told to myself… I kept looking at my coach a little bit, not too much, but, like, he’s not going to tell me something magical and, all of a sudden, everything is going to change.
“I told myself, ‘Nobody’s going to play for you, you just got to go out and do what you believe is right’.
“That is something I’m proud of, for not freaking out, or feeling bad for myself, because that’s sometimes normal reactions when you have disappointment.
“The solution solving is definitely something that I’m proud of. But, also, to simplify things a little bit. Sometimes to look for a solution, you get a little bit caught in too many things.
“To simplify that, like I did today, I think was very important.”
Much later, China’s Zhu Lin recorded her first-career win against a Top 10 player when, ranked 87, she finished off Maria Sakkari in 3 sets to reach the 4th round at the Australian Open for the first time.
With her tricky backhand and physical defence, Zhu kept Sakkari under pressure throughout the 2-hour and 33-minute tussle.
Alongside Naomi Osaka, Ons Jabeur and Caroline Garcia, Zhu was a participant in the WTA Rising Stars showcase at the 2015 WTA Finals in Singapore.
A talented young player who struggled with injuries in her transition to the main tour, Zhu has shown signs of a surge in quality over the past 6 months.
“There was a lot up and downs,” the 28-year old said in press. “Even, sometimes, I think about maybe I’m not good enough for tennis. I think about retire sometimes.
“But my family, my friends, they always talk to me. They believe I can be a better player, so they pushing me every day to become a better person. So I’m really appreciating.”
Zhu was relentless as she unwound Sakkari’s baseline game, leaving the Greek struggling to hit freely.
The Chinese took advantage, generating 15 break points, and firing 29 winners against 38 unforced errors, but Sakkari’s 42 winners to her 52 miscues proved the No 6 seed’s ultimate undoing.
After splitting the opening sets, Zhu earned an early break in the decider before Sakkari pegged her back and levelled the set at 4-4, but on her 15th and final break point of the match, the Chinese defended bravely and retook control with a perfectly placed lob that earned an error, and gave her the chance to serve out the win.
“I just keep telling myself, it’s just one break and then I need to put more for serving and be aggressive, trust myself,” Zhu said. “That’s all I tell myself, and be relaxed. Enjoy the stadium. Enjoy the crowd.”
Afterwards, Sakkari was disappointed in her performance.
“I think that my level was not good at all,” she admitted. “I started the match by being very defensive and very, like, not hitting the ball, just being scared of playing my game.
“You know, the other girl, she had basically nothing to lose. She was playing free. She was enjoying herself. She was playing very, very good.”
Sakkari also noted that Zhu played an exceptionally clean match, saying: “I’ve seen her on the tour. I’ve never seen her playing that well, to be honest. Of course, beating Jil [Teichmann] in the round up before, and I didn’t remember her moving that well as she did today.”
Zhu is the first Chinese player to reach the 4th-round at Melbourne Park, and to take out a Top 10 seed, since Qiang Wang shocked Serena Williams in 2020.
She pointed out her monumental victory arrived on the eve of the Lunar New Year: “Chinese New Year, it means a lot to us,” she said. “Today I just keep pushing, keep being aggressive and play my tennis and keep believing in myself.”
Zhu joins countrywomen Li Na, Zheng Jie, Peng Shuai, Zhang Shuai and Qiang as the only 6 players from China to reach the Round of 16 at the year’s first major.
Having never won a set against a Top 10 player in 6 attempts, Zhu adds that her victory over Sakkari gives her belief that she can play at this new level.
“It took me a long way to get here,” she explained. “And so that’s why I’m so emotional tonight.”