No worries, mates: Serena, Azarenka roll
MELBOURNE, Australia -- For a few short minutes Tuesday, the women's draw at the Australian Open trembled from the top down.
The second matches at Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena began uneventfully for top seed Victoria Azarenka and No. 3 seed Serena Williams, who were capering about in simultaneous first-rounders against Romanian opponents. An unseasonable cool snap had given way to more normal summer temperatures, and both courts were bathed in early afternoon sunshine with contented crowds watching the two women have their way.
Williams was on autopilot, up 4-0 in the first set against Edina Gallovits-Hall when she stood in against the 110th-ranked woman's serve. She ran to fetch a forehand, cranked it, followed through and slid a little to slow herself. Her right ankle buckled and she fell, heavily, and stayed down.
She put her hands over her eyes and tried to pause the flashback reel.
"I think I was really, really close to panicking because a very similar thing happened to me last year,'' Williams said, referring to the left ankle sprain she suffered late in a round of 16 match in Brisbane a year ago.
As the trainer rushed to Williams' aid and concerned murmuring swept the stands, defending champion Azarenka was wrestling with a flashback of her own -- the slices and dices produced by No. 49 Monica Niculescu, whose potpourri of spins Azarenka first encountered when they were young teenagers.
After winning the first set 6-1, Azarenka suddenly tumbled into an 0-3 trench.
"I felt like I was on the practice court a little bit, letting go a few things that I shouldn't,'' she said. "She's unusual and she tries to make you feel a little bit, you know, miserable on the court, like you don't know what to do, because every ball comes from different angles.''
Azarenka's drama was relatively short-lived as she recovered to win six of the next seven games. Williams' could be a bit of a cliff-hanger for the next day or two.
The match at hand was the easy part. Williams picked herself up, was evaluated and re-taped, then returned to action moving gingerly yet purposefully. She wasted no time in completing her 6-0, 6-0 shutout, but she has rehabbed enough to know that it will take a few hours for the swelling to recede and the adrenaline to fade enough to get a handle on how hurt she is.
"She finished that match in Brisbane, she won that,'' said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, noting that the 2012 injury looked worse from the start.
Williams withdrew from that tournament to try to heal in time for the Australian Open, but was upset by unseeded Russian Ekaterina Makarova in an error-plagued fourth-round encounter here last year; she declined to blame the ankle, although it surely was a contributing factor.
"The quality of opponent, she already had a commanding lead, [the Gallovits match] begged to be finished off quickly and she did,'' Shriver said. "She'll be able to grade it and gauge it later today -- maybe tomorrow [Wednesday] morning, but probably by the end of the day. It could be so minor that we don't even talk about it in four days.''
Were it not for the tape Williams habitually wears -- the Brisbane injury occurred right after she'd unwisely removed a brace -- things might have been worse. She walked into the postmatch news conference under her own steam and looked steely as she insisted she would play on through anything short of "something fatal.''
"You know, I think it will be a good challenge and almost a good game for me to mentally adapt to this,'' she said.
If that sounds like whistling through the tennis graveyard, consider the soft quarter that yawns ahead of Williams, who has 112th-ranked Spanish 19-year-old Garbine Muguruza on deck. The five-time champion may need distraction.
Azarenka, who said she never looks ahead in a tournament anyway, learned of Williams' injury from reporters at her news conference.
"I heard she won love and love, so what kind of injury are we talking about?'' Azarenka said with a puzzled smile.
It was the 23-year-old from Belarus who had to withdraw from Brisbane this year -- on the eve of what would have been a semifinal against Williams -- after a pedicure mishap caused an infection in her right big toe that necessitated minor surgery. The sequence of events may sound frivolous, but it was no joke.
"When I went to see the doctor who did my surgery, he said the ladies come at least once [every] two weeks with that stuff,'' she said Tuesday. "I was like, 'Really?' I now understand what it is, and I'm going to be really careful the next time.''
A relaxed Azarenka told reporters she kiddingly pointed out her photo on the wall of champions here to a security guard who asked to see her player's badge. For most of Tuesday, she played up to her stature as well.
"I thought Azarenka handled an awkward athlete well,'' Shriver said. "She may not be in as good shape as she was this time last year. But whenever you have a lower extremity thing, it means you can't train as hard. I thought it was a nice test. All these big hitters like pace, so it's not surprising that the rhythm would be off for a few games and the underdog makes a little run.''