Defending champion Victoria Azarenka received a get out of jail free card on Saturday when Jamie Hampton had her on the ropes, but the American's back injury flared up and she eventually wore down in a 6-4 4-6 6-2 defeat to the world No.1.
In a hard fought match where the 23-year-old Hampton showed off her tremendous talent, she began to feel pain in the sixth game of the second set. Her back began to cramp so she took a medical time-out when up 5-4. She still managed to grab the second set, but from that point on, she was visibly wincing after every time she struck her huge forehand and often when she served.
“I have two herniated disks in my lower back,” said Hampton, who said that her pain level was at around a seven when serving. “I just try to manage it on the court and slow down, take my time. When I got low it was really hurting, and there's not really much you can do.”
Hampton had dictated play for much of the match from inside the baseline, ripping one forehand winner after another and jumping on Azarenka’s second serves.
For her part, Azarenka looked nowhere near the player who confidently won her first major at Australian Open 2012, as she was often hesitant off the ground, with her first serve and was very conservative with her usually devastating return.
Hampton battled gamely in the third set, but after easily being broken to 2-4 in a sloppy game, she completely lost her way. She did manage to go up 40-0 on Azarenka’s serve in the next game, but she was forced into two backhand errors and then committed three straight unforced errors to go down 5-2.
Azarenka had no trouble breaking Hampton in the final game and won the match with a backhand return winner.
“I think she surprised everybody a little bit today. I didn't really see her play before, but my coach watched and he said she didn't play like that other matches that he saw,” she said. “But she definitely went for everything there was today. And I know the same feeling when you go and you have nothing to lose. You're so loose, you're free, and you feel like you can't miss it. I felt like it was her day today.”
World No.63 Hampton, who hasn't played on many show courts before, said that while she has had to deal with managing her back pain daily, that the enormity of the occasion on Rod Laver Arena might have played a role in her cramping.
“I think so,” said Hampton, who ended the match with 41 winners to just 17 from Azarenka, but committed 47 unforced errors to the Belarusian’s 28. “I think that when there is stress, stressful environment, you're probably reaching for a little bit more and trying to hit it harder, trying to move in a little bit quicker, and the stress causes some problems.”
Azarenka knew that her form wasn't up to snuff, but realises that there are always matches in a two-week Grand Slam event when players aren’t at their best. But if they can scrape out those wins, it could portend good things to come
“I don't think it was the best performance, honestly, but in another way I can say I can play better, so that's a positive note from there,” said Azarenka who will play Russian Elena Vesnina. “These kind of matches sometimes are more, brings better things for you in the future, because winning ugly, always means that you overcome something that you weren't feeling great, you weren't feeling all your shots. So I take it as a positive in the end of the day.”