After 51 minutes, Victoria Azarenka labored to her changeover chair looking a little dazed and most certainly confused.
Seven games into the first set, Azarenka’s opponent, much more diminutive underdog Sara Errani, had taken a commanding two-break lead at 5-2. The opening match of the 2013 WTA Championships looked like a shocker was brewing. According to online-betting.me.uk, Errani was listed as 150-1 favorite to win the tournament, far and away the worst odds of anyone in the eight-player field.
Azarenka, the No. 2-ranked player, was howling at herself for spraying balls she typically returns with conviction and ease. It hasn’t exactly been a seamless stretch for Azarenka, who was mired in a three-match losing streak since she reached the final of the US Open.
But tennis, much like life itself, has a way of finding its equilibrium. Azarenka began playing a little less mechanically and eventually took the opening set in a tiebreaker. The second set, of course, went as predicted. Azarenka cleaned up her game and won the match 7-6 (4), 6-2.
There is little question this was an ugly match for Azarenka, but, because of the nature of the round-robin format, losing a single set can be extremely damaging in deciding group tiebreakers. So Azarenka was, by all accounts, fortunate to walk away from this match in straight sets.
"Well, I was a little rusty at the beginning," Azarenka said. "I think it's a little bit expected after a break, and, you know, playing right away against a top player always makes it a little bit difficult because you don't have that room, adaptation. So I had to make that adaptation kind of during the match."
But, adding injury to insult, Errani also appeared to hurt her right calf or Achilles against Azarenka. The Italian was ailing, unable to move with the usual fleeting speed and grace that have been the hallmarks of her success.
Errani has her obvious handicaps, most of them a result of her 5-foot-4 stature. Her height genes aside, though, Errani plays with a tremendous amount of heart, as she showed early in the match.
But she still has to contend with the power, spin and depth of her bigger opponents on a regular basis. Her loss to Azarenka dropped her record to 0-20 lifetime against players ranked in the top three.
Errani clearly was affected by her right leg injury. And considering she really can’t contend with any of her seven cohorts in Istanbul without 100 percent health, there were some immediate questions as to whether she’ll drop out of the tournament. If so, Caroline Wozniacki, who is the first alternate, would take Errani’s place and inherit her 0-1 group record.
"Yeah, in the tiebreaker first set I felt, on the serve, a pain on my calf," Errani said. "So from there I was worried because I was feeling pain. Then I call the physio, and she make a bit of treatment.
"Then four games on, I don't know when it was, when I make the smash, I felt also cramp after, so I don't know. I am just doing treatment with the physio and see how it goes. I hope good."
Errani did imply she will give it a go against Li Na, whom she plays Wednesday.
Despite her recent travails, the caliber of work Azarenka put forth in this match was still unexpected. But she did eventually clean up her game and finished with nearly twice as many winners as unforced errors (51-27).
As the No. 2 seed, big things are expected of Azarenka. She needed this win -- you’d better believe that. Not only to regain some confidence but also because falling early in these round-robin events leaves little more room for failure.
Azarenka won’t be satisfied with the aesthetics surrounding her win Tuesday, but the bottom line is that it was a win.