By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) – The bad news for new mum Victoria Azarenka at Wimbledon on Friday was that she dropped a set against British hope Heather Watson for the first time in five meetings.
There was further frustration for the Belarussian as Watson bagged 11 games during a thrilling third round Centre Court encounter – the same number Azarenka had surrendered in total during their four previous showdowns.
Yet, those stats and an astonishing moment of judgement by Watson in the third set could not deny Azarenka victory as she reached the last 16 with a heart-stopping 3-6 6-1 6-4 win over the British wildcard.
“I really stepped up in the key moments,” said Azarenka, who is playing in only her second tournament after the birth of her son Leo in December.
Fellow two-times grand slam champion Mary Pierce put it more forcefully: “Azarenka showed today why she is a former world number one – when it counts she takes it up to another level.
“Mark of a champion.”
When Azarenka broke for 4-3 in the deciding set, following an 11-minute game which featured six deuces and five game points for her opponent, Watson’s slumped body language seemed to suggest it was game over and her spirit was broken.
Yet at 30-30 in the next game, Watson suddenly stopped the action mid point, drawing gasps from the 15,000-strong crowd as she held her left arm aloft to challenge Hawkeye on the landing spot of an Azarenka groundstroke around the dusty, threadbare baseline.
With both players looking nervously at the giant screen on court, the hollering cheers that greeted Hawkeye’s verdict left no doubt which way the call had gone – and that too by a whisker.
A backhand long from Azarenka on the next point lifted the crowd off their seats as they erupted in celebration.
But the euphoria evaporated within minutes as 102nd ranked Watson, who had come within two points of beating Serena Williams at the same stage in 2015, chased down a lob only to wallop the ball into the net, handing Azarenka yet another break point.
As she bent over her racket in frustration, Watson must have realised she was running out of lives.
A time violation was the last thing she needed – but it was what she got as she tried to gather her wits.
When she did finally launch into her serve, the muted applause that greeted the end of the point confirmed that Azarenka stood only a game away from making the second week of the grasscourt major for the fifth time.
Watson earned two further chances to throw Azarenka off course as she streaked 15-40 ahead in the 10th game but each time she miscued the service return, hitting long and wide.
It was all over two points later as Watson’s backhand error left Azarenka whooping in delight after two hours and six minutes.
(Editing by Clare Lovell and Susan Fenton)