Matt Zemek

Victoria Azarenka, like every main-draw player not named Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka, was excluded from the featured presentation on Wednesday at the Miami Open.

The iconic Serena against the newly-crowned 20-year-old champion of Indian Wells represented a top-tier blockbuster in any circumstance. That it occurred in the first round made the occasion that much more intriguing. In the shadows of that gargantuan encounter, Azarenka — in a showcase match, just not the biggest one of the day — took on promising American teenager CiCi Bellis. The “veteran champion wrestling with rust against young up-and-comer” motif was present in Williams-Osaka, and it was part of the backdrop to Azarenka-Bellis as well, just not to the same degree. 

Bellis didn’t enter this match as a white-hot player the way Osaka came into her showdown with Serena. Bellis, also unlike Osaka, cannot generate large quantities of free points on serve. To that extent, Azarenka’s task was far easier than Serena’s. The caliber of opponent wasn’t nearly as substantial.

What more closely knitted together these two WTA matches at the Crandon Park Tennis Center was the reality of uncertainty surrounding Azarenka and Serena. They have had to tend to their family lives. They both endured significantly traumatic events, albeit in very different ways. They both managed to win matches at Indian Wells but did not get past the third round, amplifying the need for more match play in the coming  months before the French Open and Wimbledon. They came to South Florida without legitimate championship expectations. Being able to win a match or two would represent an important step forward.

Azarenka achieved that with a 6-3, 6-0 thumping of Bellis, a match which did not require much in the way of layered analysis.

Bellis held serve in the first game of the match. She didn’t hold serve again. Untimely double faults represented part of the problem for Bellis, but without the placement, kick or angle needed to make her serve a weapon, she became vulnerable against Azarenka’s forceful, driving groundstrokes. Azarenka consistently got on top of Bellis’ service points and generated enough leverage with her own serve to cruise through the second set after a break-laden first frame. 

The match wasn’t close because of how poorly Bellis served. The match was won by Azarenka because of how well the Belarusian performed. Bellis did not have enough to beat Azarenka on this day; playing better would have certainly tightened the score, but probably not done enough to win the contest outright.

Azarenka has won the right to play another match. That’s the end of the story, right?

Not quite.

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