By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – After missing the Miami Open the past two injury-plagued years, two-time winner Victoria Azarenka made a triumphant return Wednesday.
The 25-year-old from Belarus, who won titles in 2009 and 2011, beat Spain’s Silvia Soler-Espinosa 6-1, 6-3 on stadium court in the first round of the Women’s main draw.
“It’s been unfortunate the last couple of years for me, but I love this tournament,” Azarenka said. “You know, the field is very strong for me all the time. I’m just happy to play anywhere I can.”
She smiled, and then continued.
“Coming back to a place where I have a lot of memories, it’s always nice,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to build my momentum here again and try to play as many matches as possible, but really to improve my level.”
After playing a strong first set Wednesday, she fell behind 3-1 before rallying.
“I’m glad I could turn it around and play well when I needed to, but I just would like to see a little bit more consistency from my game,” she said. “Most important for me is just one number: I’m trying to be No. 1. I don’t want to settle for anything else.”
Azarenka will face No. 20 seed Jelena Jankovic, runner up at Indian Wells and “always a dangerous player,” in the second round.
After Wednesday’s win, she thought back to the first two matches she won at the Miami Open.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, my God! I made it to the third round,” she said. “It felt like I won a Grand Slam. Being here at 25 feels a little different. Definitely, you evolve. Now, it feels so much different than when I was here at 19.”
Also Wednesday, former world No. 7 Nicole Vaidisova won her first WTA match since 2010. Vaidisova, who recently returned from a long hiatus from the tour, beat Timea Babos 6-1, 7-6 (4) to set up an intriguing second-round match against No. 3 seed Simona Halep.
Fellow wild-card Dana Gavrilova also moved on after Marina Erakovic retired with Gavrilova leading 5-1 in the first set.
Six women’s qualifiers won their first round matches Wednesday – Urszula Radwanska, Stefanie Voegele, Pauline Parmentier, Tatjana Maria, Alison Van Uytvanck and American Inna Falconi.
Radwanska, who beat American CoCo Vandeweghe 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-3, will next face No. 16 seed Venus Williams. Voegele advanced with a 6-2, 6-2 win against Kirsten Flipkens, Parmentier rallied to knock off Kiki Bertens 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, Maria beat Roberta Vinci 7-6 (9), 6-3 and Van Uytvanck outlasted Magdalena Rybarikova 7-5, 2-6, 6-0. Falconi edged Monica Puig 7-6 (9), 7-6 (3).
On the men’s side, Jack Sock beat Go Soeda 6-3, 6-4 and qualifier Austin Krajicek upset Denis Istomin 6-4, 6-4. Donald Young was one of four Americans to advance in the early session as Yen-Hsun Lu retired due to a neck injury while trailing 5-1 in the first set.
In other first-round men’s action, Nicolas Almagro won a three-set marathon against Sergiy Stakhovsky 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-4, James Duckworth beat fellow qualifier Damar Dzumhur 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, Carlos Berlocq knocked off qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 and Tim Smyczek rallied to defeat Adrian Menendez-MacEiras 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Qualifier Filip Krajinovic won 2-6, 7-6 (5), 4-2 with Dusan Lajovic retiring in the third set.
Jan-Lennard Struff rallied to beat fellow German Benjamin Becker 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4. Wild-card Heyon Chung also went the distance to get past Marcel Granollers 6-0, 4-6, 6-4.
Qualifier Robin Haase, Dominic Thiem, Jarkko Nieminen and Albert Ramos-Vinolas advanced in straight sets.