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Friday, May 25, 2012
Updated: May 28, 4:04 PM ET
Victoria Azarenka finds fight to win, advance

By Joanne C. Gerstner

PARIS -- It would have been totally understandable if Victoria Azarenka sighed one more time, closed her eyes, and chose to give in to the momentum mounting against her. Her first-round match at the French Open, against No. 105-ranked Alberta Brianti of Italy, was turning into a ridiculous nightmare.

Azarenka was down 6-7 (6), 0-4 on Court Philippe Chatrier, and the whisperers were growing louder: Could she go from being ranked and seeded No. 1 to being throttled and out of the French Open in the first round?

Azarenka sighed and took a moment to gather her thoughts. And she made the choice to fight.

Her level of play picked up, and Brianti suddenly wasn't dominating the clay anymore. Azarenka won 12 of next 14 games, and took the match 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-2.

The record book will record a three-set win for Azarenka. But what won't make the stat sheet is how utterly close Azarenka came to playing her way out of the French Open until her dramatic recovery.

Victoria Azarenka recorded a three-set win over Italy's Alberta Brianti, but the final score told only part of the story.

"Sixty unforced errors? I think that says it all," Azarenka said. "It happened, unfortunately, today, and I had way more mistakes than I usually do. But you know, it happens sometimes. But at the end of the day, I still won the match, through those 60 mistakes.

" ... If it was 60 winners, and I would lose that match, I think that would suck a little bit more."

Azarenka admitted her thoughts galloped through the spectrum during the match, from contemplating the merits of losing to end the struggle versus figuring out how to play better. Her growing maturity kept her on the path of going for the win, the more nerve-wracking way to go.

"Before maybe, I would maybe just give up and go home. I was kind of thinking there is a flight straight to Minsk tomorrow, so I could catch that," Azarenka said, adding a laugh. "[But] I didn't want to leave too soon."

Azarenka has been bothered in recent weeks by pain in her right shoulder. She withdrew from the Rome clay court tournament, the last one before the French Open, in order to get rest and treatment. She said she had no pain in her shoulder and doesn't feel it was a factor in her play.

Azarenka was unbalanced at times, spraying forehands and backhands into the alleys. She punted an overhead, with a wide-open court available, into the alley. She framed a forehand return sky-high, looking up at it as it arced like a foul ball, well off the court.

If it could go wrong, it went wrong for nearly two sets. Azarenka committed 49 unforced errors, with five double faults, through two sets.

"I think it's a mix of things ... maybe I was rushing too much to finish the points," Azarenka said. "But I have to give Alberta a lot credit, she played really well, and she pushed me to dig deep."

Then Azarenka flipped some internal switch and chose to play better tennis. The impact was immediate, as her groundstrokes were clipping the lines instead of the alleys. She was not going for as much on her shots, making them more high-percentage, rather than high-powered.

The body language shifted in the third set, from Azarenka looking tentative and questioning herself to Brianti becoming the frustrated one.

Brianti, 32, was so close to winning the biggest match of her life. She's never beaten a top-10 opponent, or even taken a set off one -- until Monday. It was there, in the fourth career meeting between the two women, for Brianti to do more than go down quietly again to Azarenka in straight sets.

In the end, Azarenka lives to play another day, pleased to have conquered her own emotions.

"Bad days happen," Azarenka said. "What's important is how I come out of them. And tomorrow is an opportunity to build up from there, and that's it."