The tennis gods may have smiled on top seed Victoria Azarenka today at the Australian Open. Azarenka had all she could handle in Jamie Hampton, and if Hampton hadn't sustained a lower back injury, there's a good possibility that an upset would have occurred. Azarenka may have won the match, but it will be hard for spectators to forget Hampton's exceptional tennis, as well as her gritty determination to play while in considerable pain.
Azarenka prevailed in the first set, though the 5-1 scoreline didn't adequately reflect the fight that was going on from Hampton. That fight continued, and Hampton made it to 4-5. She got shaky when she tried to even things up, however, and wound up committing her first double fault to give Azarenka the set.
Hampton didn't let the first set get her down. She played better in the second set, sometimes showing the serve of which she's capable, hitting powerful groundstrokes, and giving the crowd a good look at her stinging forehand. She broke Azarenka, and had a set point when Azarenka served at 3-5. Azarenka held in that game, and then Hampton called for the trainer. It was obvious that she was being treated for a lower back problem, and after the medical timeout, when she served for the set, Hampton winced in pain several times. She won the set, but it was obvious that she was in quite a bit of pain.
I wondered whether Hampton would retire, but she showed up for the final set, and at 1-all, she broke Azarenka. The top seed broke her back, and then Hampton had her first really bad service game of the match. She was broken, but then--suddenly--Azarenka was down 0-40. At times, almost crying from pain, Hampton began to fade. Though she had engaged her opponent in long, thrilling rallies earlier in the match, she could no longer stretch out. Attempting to keep points short, she took too many risks and made errors. By the time Azarenka held for 5-2, Hampton had nothing left. The top seed took the set 6-2 and advanced to the round of 16.
Jamie Hampton won the crowd over, and with good reason. She could have retired very respectfully, but the fact that she kept going, seemingly with no fear of Azarenka, was the real story of this match. We've seen this type of grit before, most notably from Venus and Serena, and who can forget Caroline Wozniacki's performance in Doha in 2009? Under other circumstances, Hampton might have thought it wise to retire, but she couldn't stop playing when she knew she had a chance to pull off a huge upset.
Hampton hit 41 winners and put on quite a show, keenly anticipating her opponent's shots, and moving expertly around the court. A forehand that she hit from outside the doubles line will probably be shown again several times on television, and was the shot of the match. If there were such a thing as the Most Improved Fitness award, Hampton would win it, hands down. Her game, which was already good, has improved significantly since she got serious about fitness.
It's also worth mentioning that Hampton, who--until she was injured--was having an exceptionally good tennis day, got inside Azarenka's head, and hung around there for quite a while. The top seed probably wasn't expecting what she got from her opponent, and it showed. She made errors, she double-faulted, she looked bewildered, and--from Hampton's side of the net--probably not very scary.
What this means in terms of Azarenka's Australian Open campaign is anyone's guess. It could very well have served as a wake-up call of sorts. In the next round, the world number 1 plays Elena Vesnina, who--on a good day--has a tricky and very effective serve. Of course, one expects Azarenka to move on with relative ease as she presumably heads toward yet another battle with Serena Williams. But the old demons showed up to torment Azarenka today, undoubtedly giving her more to think about than she would like.