We have all known it was coming but it still does not make it any easier to deal with.
The hot weather had been forecast days and days ago and sure enough, bang on cue, it started on Tuesday morning: 36.3 degrees when play began at 11am climbing to 38.9 degrees by the time Victoria Azarenka had fumbled her way to 7-6, 6-2 win over Johanna Larsson and begun the defence of her title.
Fortunately, Azarenka loves the Australian Open more than any other tournament (well, she has made a habit of winning it of late) and no matter what the Melbourne climate throws at her, she cannot wait to play here.
Drawn to play on Day 2, she spent most of Monday pacing around her hotel room, impatiently trying to kill time before she got back to her beloved Rod Laver Arena. “It’s just so exciting to come back,” she gushed after her one hour and 46 minute workout in the sun. “Every time it’s like the first time I play here.”
And, to be honest, for parts of the first set, it did look like she had never played here before. The heat made the balls fly while Larsson was keeping the champion guessing.
Pretty in pink, it was not long before Azarenka was turning puce – she dropped serve to go 2-1 down in the opening set and then, to add insult to injury, she was denied the chance to consult Hawk-Eye. The umpire, Kerrilyn Cramer, had spotted that the world No.2 had had a crafty word with her support team in the players’ box before asking for the challenge – and that is simply not allowed. Not even if you are the defending champion.
The love of Azarenka’s life, RedFoo, saw no reason to get upset and was looking remarkably cool under all that hair. Apparently RedFoo has a nephew named SkyBlu which does make you wonder who is in charge of names in that family. Presumably they have an uncle whom no one talks about called BlackSheep and desperately dull cousin by the name of BeigeBitz. Anyway, RedFoo knew that his lass had it all under control even if the lady in question was doing her best to hide the fact.
Part of Azarenka’s problem was the conditions and those pesky, flying balls and part of it was Larsson who was, at times, standing toe to toe with the champion and giving it all she was worth from the baseline.
After 72 minutes of battle, there was barely a cigarette paper between them: both were racking up the unforced errors and both were cracking some impressive winners. It was a real curate’s egg of a performance from both women. But what set Azarenka apart was her ability to spot an opportunity and seize it. She had three break points in the first set – and she took them all. Larsson, too, broke three times but it took her 10 break points to get the job done.
“The weather wasn’t helping,” Azarenka said. “It’s really hot and the ball is really bouncing. First matches aren’t easy and I’m just glad I won that first set.”
By the time the Swedish world No.91 had failed to serve out the set and found herself 4-0 down in the tiebreak, there looked to be only one winner. Sure enough, as soon as she dropped her serve to go 2-1 down in the second set, Larsson was left trailing in Azarenka’s wake as the champion headed for the second round and an appointment with Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.