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A vintage display from Victoria Azarenka has fired the two-time Australian Open champion back into her first semifinal at Melbourne Park since lifting the trophy a decade ago on Rod Laver Arena.

The former world No.1 dictated play 6-4 6-1 to prevail past third seed Jessica Pegula under the lights in their quarterfinal on Tuesday night.

The build-up

Pegula has been replicating her supreme consistency from 2022 so far in Australia.

Spearheading Team USA to United Cup glory, the 28-year-old then earned her third successive Australian Open quarterfinal for the loss of just 18 games.

The No.3 seed found herself as the highest-ranked contender left, but wasn’t getting carried away.

“It’s an interesting feeling, I guess. I still don’t really feel like that. I look at the draw and you have (Elena) Rybakina who won Wimbledon last year, you have Vika (Azarenka) who does really well here,” said Pegula.

“It feels like there’s still a long way to go, to be honest.”

Pegula was in charge 7-6(7) 6-1 in their last duel in Guadalajara last October, levelling their head-to-head record at 2-2.

Two-time champion Azarenka heaped praise on Pegula.

“Her stability and consistency throughout, I wouldn’t only say last year, I would say the years before that. She’s been an incredible player,” explained the 33-year-old.

“She got me here (at AO 2021), so I definitely want revenge. She’s a great friend of mine. I absolutely adore her. We have really tough battles every single time.”

There would be no surprises for the regular practice partners. Tuesday night would all come down to execution.

Story of the match

There was a fist bump in the tunnel between these close friends, but that was out the window on court.

First-strike tennis was on the menu, and it was Azarenka controlling the tempo.

Pegula connected with a highlight-reel backhand pass under pressure, however, the No.24 seed consolidated a 3-0 lead in just 12 minutes of clinical hitting.

The American then fended off six break points in an intriguing 10-minute hold to finely get on the scoreboard.

Despite Azarenka soaring 5-2 up, Pegula dug deep, stepping into rip on the return to erase two set points for 5-4. A switch of momentum seemed on the cards, but Azarenka had other ideas.

She re-imposed herself with three games to secure the set and take another commanding 2-0 lead in the second.

The 33-year-old rubber-stamped her authority, sprinting onto a drop shot to clatter a backhand down the line. Anything the No.3 seed tried, Azarenka seemed a step ahead.

Time to rewind to 2013. One last prolonged rally, one more great retrieval, Azarenka had her arms raised to toast revenge.

“It hurts to beat her, I always want her to do well,” said Azarenka. “At the same time, I knew I had to play my best, she’s been amazing, so consistent.

“I knew from the very first point I had to bring it, to take my opportunities. I’m very proud I executed my game plan very well. It’s so amazing to be in the semifinal of another Grand Slam.”

Key stats

Azarenka moved on to 47 main draw victories at the Australian Open, equalling Steffi Graf in sixth place of the most wins in women’s singles in the Open era.

It’s also a first top-five victory in Grand Slam play for Azarenka since the 2012 US Open.

The essential stat is the world No.24 is back in a semifinal at Melbourne Park for the first time since being crowned champion in 2013. What a story of perseverance.

What this means for Azarenka

Having lifted the trophy twice as well as runner-up spots at the US Open (2012-13 and 2020), Azarenka will be gunning for the final.

It’s all about a mental transformation.

“Especially last year, my tennis wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t mentally there. I played with a lot of fear and anxiety. It was really difficult to be brave, to make the right choices when you feel anxious and hesitant,” said the former world No.1.

“I worked a lot on my mindset, challenging myself on things I wouldn’t do before, try to push myself.

“When you achieve great success, sometimes you become conservative, more hesitant to try new things, but this off-season I was open-minded. I put my head down and I worked hard.”

Standing in her path in the last four is the firepower of Wimbledon champion Rybakina, after the Kazakh beat Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets earlier on Tuesday.

Rybakina claimed their only previous meeting 6-3 6-4 at Indian Wells last March.

What’s next for Pegula?

Until Tuesday, Pegula had compiled a remarkable start to the 2023 campaign. It’s very much a case of keep building.

Now at 0-5 in major quarterfinals, a dejected Pegula will try to find the missing pieces to the puzzle in order to transport her consistency to the latter stages of Grand Slams.

Source: Alex Sharp

www.sports24ghana.com

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