Victoria Azarenka, the 2013 champion, needed to dig deep to overcome Carla Suárez Navarro 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-4 and reach the second round for the fourth time at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. Former World No.1 Azarenka extended her head-to-head record against Suárez Navarro to 3-0, though they had not met on tour since 2009, and claimed her tenth hardcourt win of the season hitting 55 winners to the Spaniard's 29 and 38 unforced errors to 25.
She will meet for the first time No.6 seed Caroline Garcia, who had a first-round bye, ranked at a career-high World No.5 this week. Returning for her fifth appearance in Cincinnati and first since giving birth to her son Leo in 2016, Azarenka showed glimpses of her fighting spirit that produced the 2013 title run.
The former world No.1, who reached two further round 16 here in 2009 (l. Jankovic, who owns the most wins here, 24) and her most recent appearance in 2015 (l. Pavlyuchenkova). Azarenka completed her seventh victory against Top 50 players this season, with five of those wins coming during Miami semifinal showing, and continued her good tradition: in fact, she has recorded at least one win at every North American tournament she has participated in over the last four calendar years (15 total tournaments) since 2014 Stanford.
"Phisically I'm very fit right now. Probably better than I have ever been before" she said after Wimbledon. "But to be able to connect that with my tennis, it's been challenging and a little bit frustrating in a way, because, you know, sometimes when you're unfit or something, you're late to the ball or you're not making up steps or whatever.
And for me it's the opposite and too early, I'm way too early to the ball, and then I have so much time that I'm thinking too much sometimes." Quite often, she demonstrated in Ohio not to have solved the problem, particularly off the backhand side.
No.13 seed Madison Keys rallied from a set and a break down to defeat wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, bidding to clinch her first Top 20 win since 2017 Roland Garros, to complete a 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 comeback win. She will now meet Anastasia Sevastova or the lucky loser Camila Giorgi who took Venus William's place in the main draw.
The 2017 US Open finalist opened the US Open series here after she had to withdraw from San Jose and Montréal with right wrist injury. Playing the tournament for the fifth time, Keys aims to reach her first quarter-final but her stuttering game from the baseline put her under severe pressure.
Mattek-Sands, one of the two qualifiers to reach the semifinals here (on her debut in 2005) went two games away from becoming the lowest ranked player to defeat Keys since No.395 Rogers at $50k ITF/Charlottesville in 2012.
In her second event under new coach David Taylor, Keys saved herself thanks to her hammering serves but for the first two sets Mattek-Sands used her creative game, her risky shots and her expert net game to dictate the rallies as she won the opening set and had a point to go 4-1 in the second set.
As she dropped serve in the eighth game, Keys began her comeback. Tension and pressure resurfaced, however, as she missed six match points before completing her fourth win against a compatriot this season. "That was a little bit dramatic, but I'm happy to get through and get to play another match," Keys said on-court after the match.
"It's always tough playing a friend and on top of that, knowing her story and how hard she's fought to come back. It's always difficult when you have someone that you care about on the other side of the net." No.10 seed Julia Goerges was forced to retire with a left calf injury when trailing 6-4 3-2 against Kiki Mladenovic who, reaching the second round, equaled her best performance at Western & Southern Open (she won a match only in 2015 and 2016).
Having lost the last six sets played against the German before this match, Mladenovic clinched her best win-by-rank since defeating No.5 Muguruza at 2017 Roland Garros. Mladenovic, No.2 seed in doubles this week with Babos, will meet for the first time Slovak qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova.
The world No.57 hit 18 aces to defeat Aliaksandra Sasnovich, the higher-ranked player she has beaten this season, 60 46 61.