It’s always hard to know what Victoria Azarenka is thinking. The world No.1, the defending champion, can seem happy, grumpy, content, and indifferent, almost all at the same time.
But Rod Laver Arena is her comfort zone. At least it was in 2012, the court that yielded her first Grand Slam victory. And, so far in 2013, Melbourne Park's flagship court is Azarenka's happy place yet again, the Belarusian opening her title defence with a 6-1 6-4 victory over the often-unpredictable Monica Niculescu.
Niculescu, anyone on tour will tell you, is an enigma. She is the Fabrice Santoro of sorts of the WTA; her racquet more prone to slice than topspin, and her changes in pace so abrupt that it’s impossible to form a pattern. The way to beat her is to out-hit her, which is exactly what Azarenka employed over two sets.
“She's unusual and she tries to make you feel a little bit, you know, miserable on the court, like you don't know what to do, because every ball comes from different angles,” Azarenka said.
“It's important to keep your focus. I was trying to execute my shots, not really worried about what she's going to bring out, you know, because sometimes I don't think she knows where she's going.”
Admittedly, the Belarusian did not help herself with a first serve percentage of only 67%, Niculescu making a slightly surprising 95 per cent of returns. And the world No.1, who has been suffering from a pedicure-induced injury, also produced only marginally fewer errors than winners, 22 to 23.
“I felt like the first set was really flowing my way and everything was going well for me,” Azarenka said. “I was executing what I wanted. And then, you know, I kind of miss-hit few shots and she got really competitive. I felt like I was on the practice court a little bit, letting go few things that I shouldn't.
“After that I just really had to pump myself up to get into that, you know, state of mind of competitiveness. From there, I got back and I started to do the right things again.”
But it was a first round match and, like all first round matches, once they have been won they are to be built upon.
“I couldn't wait to get out there and play,” Azarenka said. “It's been a long week preparation, so you always feel like a little bit overwhelmed before your first match. So I was the same way. That's what I needed to, you know, get into that competitive spirit, which I did. I'm happy.”
How Azarenka will react on hearing that her erstwhile rival Serena Williams, who snatched a second Grand Slam title right from under her nose at Flushing Meadows last year, rolled her ankle, could be interesting. She may feel that it will open a door for her, and look too far ahead. Or she won’t pay any attention to it at all – not that it stops the world’s press from conjecture.
“I heard she won love and love, so what kind of injury are we talking about?” Azarenka laughed, revealing instead that she never looks at her draw.
“’Cause I used to look all the time and it made me think too much.
What's the point?”
She has a point.