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Orange County Breakers beat San Diego Aviators in home opener

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Victoria Azarenka, playing for the Orange County Breakers, returns a serve in the women’s singles match against the San Diego Aviators in Saturday’s World Team Tennis match at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach.
(James Carbone)

Victoria Azarenka’s aim is to again become the world’s best women’s tennis player, but she was looking only to enjoy herself Saturday, when she made her lone World Team Tennis appearance in Newport Beach.

The Belarussian superstar, who won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013 to rise to No. 1 in the rankings, dominated her singles match and helped the Orange County Breakers claim nine points in doubles en route to a 24-17 victory over the San Diego Aviators in their home opener at Palisades Tennis Club.

Azarenka, who is based in California and playing her fourth WTT season, is preparing for the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26, and her three sets with the Breakers fit into that. That’s not why she agreed to play.

“[This is] fun,” she said after signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. “That’s the best benefit. Obviously, playing a little bit of competitive matches, you get competitive spirit. But mostly it’s fun. I feel like it’s a great event.

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“When you’re training for competition, it’s just fun to play and mix it up, play in a team, something we don’t really experience that often. So it was cool.”

Orange County (2-2) won four of five sets with the Aviators (3-3) in a rematch of the 2016 and 2017 finals -- San Diego won the first, and the Breakers captured their second title the following year -- as James Ward pulled out a tight men’s singles match and teamed with Luke Bambridge to win in men’s singles.

Azarenka had the biggest win, beating former USC star Danielle Lao, 5-1, in women’s singles. It was closer than the score suggests: four games went to deuce, with Azarenka winning the sudden-death point three times.

The Breakers prevailed in nine of 13 such games and won two of three tiebreakers to win sets.

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“Those all-deciding points, those deuce points, are so important,” head coach Rick Leach said. “That really decides the match.”

Ward toppled Taylor Fritz, 5-1, in the men’s singles tiebreaker after both held their serve through eight games, and Azarenka and Andreja Klepak won a 5-1 tiebreaker in women’s doubles after Lao and Anna-Lena Groenefeld rallied from a 4-2 deficit to tie the match.

The only set the Breakers dropped was in mixed doubles -- the opening event -- in which Groenefeld and Jonny O’Mara won a deuce point to force a tiebreaker against Azarenka and Bambridge at 4-4, then won five of nine points in the extra game.

Azarenka is ranked 38th after missing much of 2017 and some of 2018 while in a child-custody battle. She reached the third round at Wimbledon, falling in straight sets to Simona Halep, who won the title.

“I’m trying to be the best again and fulfill my potential and try to win some more Grand Slams, hopefully, by the end of my career,” she said. “We’ll see what happens. ... Right now I’m looking forward to every tournament, try to get as many matches as I can before the [U.S.] Open, and hopefully do well there.”

Leach was happy to have her with his team, even if it was just for one day.

“She’s an unbelievable player,” he said. “She’s one of the greatest of all-time. I really liked the energy she brought. She played three sets for us, and she wanted to win. And that’s all you can ask for as a coach, to have that fighting desire out there and wanting to help the team.”

The Breakers have six more home matches in the next 11 days -- Monday vs. Springfield, Tuesday vs. Philadelphia, Wednesday vs. New York, next Saturday vs. Las Vegas, July 29 vs. Orlando and July 31 vs. Washington -- and the three-week WTT season will conclude with the final four Aug. 2 and 3.

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Springfield, the defending champion, tops the standings with a 5-0 record. Philadelphia is 5-1, and the Breakers, San Diego and New York (3-3) are tied for third in the eight-team league.

Steve Johnson, a two-time NCAA singles champion at USC who is ranked 68th in the world, will join the Breakers for the matches Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, ranked 95th, will play Tuesday.

“Stevie’s an unbelievable addition,” Leach said. “And Eugenie’s exciting, because she was No. 5 in the world at one time. So it’s going to be fun.”

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