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Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka was on the verge of earning the ignominy of becoming the first top seed in the Open Era to lose in the first round of the French Open, going down a set and 4-0 to 32-year old Italian Alberta Brianti before storming back to win 12 of the next 14 games to earn a hard fought 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 win against the world no.105 to book her place in Round 2. Meanwhile, it was a largely comfortable morning for the seeds with Dominika Cibulkova, Nadia Petrova and Anabel Medina Garrigues cruising into the second round. 19th seed Jelena Jankovic was made to work for her win, while up and coming German Mona Barthel, seeded 30th, made a surprising exit at the hands of American teenager Lauren Davis.
World no.1 Victoria Azarenka came into her first round match having destroyed Alberta Brianti 6-0, 6-1 in their previous meeting, just last year, and looked to be on course for an encore as she raced through the opening two games, breaking Brianti's serve easily to go up 2-0.
However, that is where things started to go awry for Azarenka. The world no.1 was going for her shots right from the off, not building up points at all, hoping to blast her opponent off the court. While that approach might have worked in the first couple of games, she started missing far too often, and a rising unforced error count saw Brianti come storming back, winning four games on the bounce to pull ahead 4-2. Azarenka broke back in the following game to bring the set back on serve, but promptly conceded the advantage as her serve was broken for the third straight time.
Brianti served for the set at 5-3, but was broken right back, though she did earn a set point on the Azarenka serve at 30-40. The world no.1 though produced three terrific winners on the next three points to dig herself out of a hole for 5-5.
The next two games went with serve, with Brianti saving two breakpoints en route to forcing the set into a tiebreak. Azarenka played some poor tennis in the tiebreak, going for too much once again too early in points and soon found herself down 5-1. Azarenka worked hard to claw her way back to 4-5, but an errant forehand gifted Brianti two more set points. Victoria saved the first with a crisp cross court backhand winner, before an incredible rally went in the world no.1's favour when an attempted lob from the Italian floated well long.
However, Vika just refused to learn from her mistakes making an unforced error off either wing to lose the next two points as Brianti took the first set 8-6 in the breaker.
Brianti carried her momentum into the second set, and played smart tennis, allowing Azarenka to continue to self destruct. Vika appeared to have learnt nothing from her first set debacle as the unforced errors continued to flow and it became rather clear that she just didn't want to be out there on court. The Italian rocketed to a 4-0 lead without having to do anything else but put the ball in play.
Azarenka though wasn't done just yet, squeezing out a tough hold before suddenly finding the range on her ground strokes to win three games on the bounce to claw her way back to 3-4. While Azarenka appeared rejuvenated, Brianti's confidence appeared to dissipate, and the comeback appeared to be complete when Victoria rattled off three more games in a row to snatch the second set 6-4.
Azarenka continued to ensure there was some more drama to come, dropping her serve in the first game of the final set, only to break right back. The Belarusian was in trouble again in her next service game, but managed to hang on to hold serve. Brianti stayed in the contest to the best of her ability, but by then the writing was very much on the wall and Azarenka won 14 points in a row to close out the match 6-2 in the final set.
Out on Court Suzanne Lenglen, 15th seed Dominika Cibulkova crushed French teenager Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-1 to book her place in round 2. The pocket-sized dynamo who made the semi-finals here a couple of years ago will face American Vania King in the next round. King, predominantly a doubles specialist, downed Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan 6-4, 6-2.
There was a genuine upset on Court 3 with 30th seed and a very much in-form player in Mona Barthel getting hammered 6-1, 6-1 by 18-year old American qualifier Lauren Davis. The youngster will meet fellow American Christina McHale who battled past 20-year old Dutch girl Kiki Bertens 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Other early winners included 27th seed Nadia Petrova and 29th seed Anabel Mdeia Garrigues, who easily beat Iveta Benesova and Laura Robson respectively. Former world no.1 Jelena Jankovic had no such luck, having to come back from a set down to squeeze past Patricia Mayr-Achleitner of Austria 1-6, 6-1, 7-5.
Singles - First Round
(1) Victoria Azarenka (BLR) d. Alberta Brianti (ITA) 67(6) 64 62
(15) Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) d. (WC) Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) 62 61
(19) Jelena Jankovic (SRB) d. Patricia Mayr-Achleitner (AUT) 16 61 75
(27) Nadia Petrova (RUS) d. Iveta Benesova (CZE) 63 63
(29) Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP) d. (LL) Laura Robson (GBR) 62 61
(Q) Lauren Davis (USA) d. (30) Mona Barthel (GER) 61 61
Vania King (USA) d. Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ) 64 62
Olga Govortsova (BLR) d. Romina Oprandi (SUI) 64 61
(Q) Chan Yung-Jan (TPE) d. Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR) 61 76(8)
File Photograph Copyright: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix
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