Commentary

Clay not really Azarenka's forte

Updated: June 2, 2013, 3:46 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- She was the No. 1-ranked player in the world for one week short of a year and, earlier this season, defended her title at the Australian Open. In 2012, there was an appearance in the US Open final, and a semifinal -- her second in a row -- at Wimbledon.

So why can't Victoria Azarenka figure out the red stuff at Roland Garros? Why is clay so cloying in her craw? How to explain her struggles on this most elemental of surfaces?

Saturday was just another example; No. 3-seeded Azarenka had to rally fairly furiously to beat Alize Cornet, of all people, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in a match that ran 2 hours, 22 minutes.

"I don't think I played really the right way, or was playing my best way, taking my chances in the first set," Azarenka acknowledged. "I felt that I was playing very comfortable for her, and she started to, you know, make a lot of winners, you know, fight and make a lot of balls.

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt took hard work for Victoria Azarenka to reach the fourth round at the French Open.
"So I changed that a little bit in the second set and really took my chances moving forward and continued to stay aggressive, and that's what was bringing me, after, the points and the victory in the end."

To begin with, Azarenka is not the most patient person, and clay requires enormous reserves. Delicate point construction is essential, and, on other surfaces, Azarenka's big game -- and perhaps the finest backhand on the women's side -- carries her swiftly through the points.

On clay, Azarenka's hard, flat groundstrokes don't penetrate the court; they sit up in an opponent's wheelhouse. The two times she advanced to the quarterfinals here, she was bettered by players more conversant with clay. Dinara Safina beat her in 2009, and it was Li Na, on the way to the title, in 2011.

Saturday, Azarenka was pushed to the three-set limit by Cornet, a clever Frenchwoman who won the junior girls title here six years ago. She has no particular weapons to speak of but, with a variety of bloops, chips, slices and a crisp backhand -- plus some assistance from Azarenka's off-kilter serve -- ran away with the first set.

Cornet has played nine events here, going back to the age of 15, and she equaled her career best in women's singles, reaching the third round. Still, despite winning the tournament last week in Strasbourg, she is 1-17 against top-five players.

Azarenka settled down, breaking Cornet in the fifth game of the second set with some flashing forehands and vintage backhands down the line. By the third set, Cornet was simply overwhelmed.

"She really picked up her rhythm after the middle of the second," Cornet said. "So I let her just muscle in, really. She's a machine, a juggernaut, Azarenka. She plays the same from the first to the last point. And even she raised her game. And mine dipped."

Next up for Vika, in the fourth round: Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 champion here.

To win, Azarenka will have to get her serve dialed in a lot better. In her news conference, a reporter asked her about her "terrible day, timingwise."

"Yeah, I think I left [my serve] home today," Azarenka said, smiling. "But if I can win with serving like this, that's pretty remarkable, I have to say."

Sharapova advances

Maria Sharapova seemed well on her way to an easy victory and a fourth-round showdown with 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens when Jie Zheng began to assert herself, taking a 4-1 lead in the second set.

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesMaria Sharapova made her way past Jie Zheng. Will she do the same to Sloane Stephens next?
It took a while -- 1 hour, 45 minutes -- but Sharapova ultimately prevailed, 6-1, 7-5. She did not seem especially pleased with herself as she sauntered to the net.

"Well, the good thing I can take from that is that I did play a good set, so that was a positive; I put myself in a good position," Sharapova said. "But then I gave her all the momentum starting from the first game of the second set, which is not a position that you want to be in. Yeah, 1-4 is not a score that I want to be in, but I am happy with the way I fought back."

Sharapova, the No. 2 seed and defending champion here, is not a natural clay-court player. It has taken her years to master the slippery slope of Roland Garros, although she has built an impressive record 40-9 here. Believe it or not, that's the best mark among all active players.

Zheng, 29, is a creditable player, having played Sharapova close in three previous matches, even winning once, three years ago at Indian Wells. She reached the quarterfinals a week ago in Brussels, beating former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the process.

Sharapova knows Stephens' game well, having beaten her 6-2, 6-1 last month in Rome.

"It was a couple of weeks ago, but this is a Grand Slam stage," Sharapova said. "I'm sure she will want to change a few things around and play a better match. And you expect that at this type of tournament.

There is no doubt that I have a tough one ahead of me."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.