Azarenka steps up her clay game at Italian Open

·2-min read

Fresh off a doubles title in Madrid, two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka has stepped up her singles game on the red clay courts at the Italian Open by defeating Sloane Stephens 6-4 6-3 in her opening match.

Stephens was coming off a singles title at a smaller clay-court event in Saint Malo, France, while Azarenka lost her singles opener in Madrid.

"I was definitely quite nervous before the match," Azarenka said. "I felt like I didn't have too many matches under my belt and Sloane just won the tournament, so I knew she's in a good form, so I just tried to kind of stay focused on myself."

The strategy worked, as Azarenka overpowered Stephens with baseline winners, plus a drop-shot winner to conclude a long rally midway through the second set when she broke for a 4-2 lead.

Azarenka is making her 14th appearance at the Foro Italico, having reached the final in 2013, when she lost to Serena Williams.

"It feels like it was such a long time ago," Azarenka said. "Time goes by fast. I try to appreciate every moment I have on the court. I'm not sure how long I will play longer, so I want to enjoy it. But I still feel like I can be very competitive."

This year, Azarenka has reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open and won the doubles title last week with Beatriz Haddad Maia, who she's partnering again in Rome.

Also, 2019 Rome champion and two-time runner-up Karolina Pliskova was eliminated by Hungarian qualifier Anna Bondar 7-6 (7-5) 6-2; Wang Xiyu defeated Madrid quarter-finalist Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4 7-5; and 11th-seeded Veronika Kudermetova beat Nuria Parrizas Diaz 7-5 6-2.