2 Jan 2019

Pulsating encounter the perfect consolation

11:14 am on 2 January 2019

If you're upset about Viktoria Azarenka having only one match at the latest edition of the ASB Classic, you can kind of blame me.

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Photo: AFP

As is the custom for the ATP 250 event's draw, the attending media were invited to play their part by draw the upturned chips that denoted which players would enter the tournament alongside the pre-ordained seeds.

I was excited that I got to randomly pick who Azarenka would play in her first round match, but that feeling soon turned to a sick sense of 'what have I done' when the number I drew turned out to be Venus Williams.

So no matter what happened on Wednesday evening at Stanley Street, one of the biggest names in the tournament was on a plane out of Auckland a few days earlier than tournament organisers would have wanted.

On the upside, it generated a fair few headlines and ensured there would be a decent crowd on the second day of play.

This time last year the ASB Classic women's tournament managed to deliver both top seeds to the final, with German Julia Goerges beating former world number one Caroline Wozniacki to take the title.

However, Wozniacki didn't have to wait long to get over the result, winning her maiden Grand Slam title in Melbourne just a few weeks later.

Both have returned this year. The classy defending champ breezed through her first round match against Swede Johanna Larsson, barely breaking a sweat to win 6-0, 6-4.

Wozniacki's duties on the day were even lighter, playing ring toss in the Moet Chandon tent and fielding questions from the media.

She looked relaxed and brushed off any suggestion that her Grand Slam success last year had added any pressure.

"To be honest, my life didn't change much. Obviously it was something that I really wanted, it was an amazing.

But after that it goes back to the same routine: wake up, practice, prepare, play. I think once you finish your career, that's when you really look back and be proud of your accomplishments." she told us.

However, the main event of the day was the matchup that I'd been responsible for.

Williams, now 38 but still capable of making Grand Slam finals (two in 2017, losing to sister Serena in Melbourne and Spaniard Garbine Murguruza at Wimbledon) came on to a big centre court reception just after 7pm. Centre court was packed, and enjoying the last of what had been an overcast but warm day in Auckland.

Azarenka has spent a decent chunk of the last two years off the tour.

First she had her first child, but was then forced to withdraw from the 2017 US Open and then the 2018 Australian Open due to a protracted custody battle.

She looked exceptionally rusty in the first set, with Williams breaking her twice to race to a 5-1 lead.

The American took the set 6-3, but whatever Azarenka had to drink during the break more than did the trick.

She breezed through the second to win 6-1, and the big crowd could get their money's worth as the match went to a third set.

While the first two were one-sided, both players threw everything at each other in the third set.

Services breaks came regularly, but Williams gained the crucial one to go up 5-3.

She took the next game to close out a pulsating encounter, which brought the crowd to their feet to salute both winner and loser. Should this have been a quarterfinal? In a perfect world, yes, but this was a pretty perfect consolation.

Attention tomorrow turns to Wozniacki's first round match with Laura Siegemund, but Goerges's ruthless display showed that she is in a serious mood to keep the title she won last year.

It's been an entertaining start to the only WTA event you can see here in New Zealand all year, and the crowds and weather have played their part so far.

I might ban myself from the upcoming men's draw though, just in case I'm somewhat responsible for another early exit.