ROME — Fresh off a doubles title in Madrid, Victoria Azarenka stepped up her singles game on the red clay courts at the Italian Open by defeating Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-3 in her opening match on Thursday.
Stephens was coming off a singles title at a smaller clay-court event in Saint Malo, France, while Azarenka lost her singles opener in Madrid.
“I was definitely quite nervous before the match,” Azarenka said. “I felt like I didn’t have too many matches under my belt and Sloane just won the tournament, so I knew she’s in a good form, so I just tried to kind of stay focused on myself.”
The strategy worked, as Azarenka overpowered Stephens with baseline winners, plus a drop-shot winner to conclude a long rally midway through the second set when she broke for a 4-2 lead.
Azarenka is making her 14th appearance at the Foro Italico, having reached the final in 2013, when she lost to Serena Williams.
“It feels like it was such a long time ago,” Azarenka said. “Time goes by fast. I try to appreciate every moment I have on the court. I’m not sure how long I will play longer, so I want to enjoy it. But I still feel like I can be very competitive.”
This year, Azarenka has reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and won the doubles title last week with Beatriz Haddad Maia, who she’s partnering again in Rome.
Also, 2019 Rome champion and two-time runner-up Karolina Pliskova was eliminated by Hungarian qualifier Anna Bondar 7-6 (5), 6-2; Wang Xiyu defeated Madrid quarterfinalist Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 7-5; and 11th-seeded Veronika Kudermetova beat Nuria Parrizas Diaz 7-5, 6-2.
In men’s action, German qualifier Daniel Altmaier beat Italian wild card Giulio Zeppieri 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-0 on the picturesque statue-lined Pietrangeli court; and Jason Kubler defeated Marc-Andrea Huesler 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2.
Rome is the last big warmup before the French Open starts at the end of the month.