Roland Garros: Petkovic and Halep into first major semis with ease - UBITENNIS
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Roland Garros: Petkovic and Halep into first major semis with ease

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TENNIS ROLAND GARROS – Perhaps it was the late start due to the rain delay or maybe it was being on the brink of a huge career milestone but both Andrea Petkovic and Simona Halep raced into their maiden major semifinal berth with relative ease. They both dispatched of seasoned veterans on tour who have had great success at these championships. Cordell Hackshaw

 

Interviews, Results, OOP, Draws from the Roland Garros

Perhaps it was the late start due to the rain delay or maybe it was being on the brink of a huge career milestone but both Andrea Petkovic (28) and Simona Halep (4) raced into their maiden major semifinal berth with relative ease. They both dispatched of seasoned veterans on tour who have had great success at these championships. They also won with the same score line without any of the dramatics that highlighted the other two women’s quarterfinals. Petkovic took care of Sara Errani (10) the 2012 finalist here 6-2 6-2 and Halep dismissed Svetlana Kuznetsova (27) the 2009 champion 6-2 6-2.

Petkovic and Errani were first up on after the delay and immediately, the more experienced Italian broke the German immediately and held serve for a 2-0 lead. “I had a very good game plan from my coach. It didn’t work in the beginning…[S]o I was kind of getting a little worried.” Petkovic said after the match. However, she added the she believed in the plan and decided to stick with it and “So I was lucky that I started playing better and that I was putting more balls into play. And then also the game plan started working out better.” She was more than lucky as she reeled off 6 straight games to close out the set 6-2 in 27 minutes. Errani on the other hand looked listless and unable to show off her trademark defensive skills. She was pulled well out of her comfort zone and unable to get any momentum swinging her way.

The 2nd set began with the players trading breaks for four successive games to be even at 2-2. It was not until the 5th game that Petkovic finally held serve and never looked back. She continued with the game plan that worked so well for her in the 1st set. She attacked Errani’s serves relentlessly, continually pummeling it and returning them with interest. The Italian was left scrambling behind the baseline trying to get the heavy deep shots back into court. Petkovic would break Errani for the 7th consecutive time when the Italian sprayed the ball wide resulting in her losing the match. In just over an hour, Petkovic moved through to her first major semifinals 6-2 6-2. The German spoke about match point, “I saw the ball, and it was so slow. I just prayed to God that it went out, because I didn’t want to smash that ball…I was just praying that it went out….Please, please, please, please, please. When it went out I was super relieved and super happy.”

Errani spoke of the match Well, I think she played a good match. The problem was not that. It was me. No power, no energy.” That was not the Italian’s only problem; she also had no serve. She held serve once during the eight times she serve. Despite getting 75% of her first serves in, she was only winning 39% of those points and 17% on second serve. It was easy pickings for Petkovic who on the other hand did not have great numbers but good enough to beat Errani. She got 91% of her serves in but only won 56% of the points on first serves and 50% on second serves. However, she was able to get 26 winners many of which came off the Errani serve. Petkovic’s achievement is the first time a German woman has made it to the semifinal at the French Open in near 15 years when Steffi Graf did so in 1999. Graf would later go on to win the title over Martina Hingis.

In the last women’s quarterfinals, Halep was facing a more formidable foe than Petkovic in the form of Kuznetsova. Kuznetsova knows that it takes to win here in Paris and so far this tournament, has shown herself looking very much like a former champion. However, the Russian came out flat against the Romanian who quickly took a 2-0 lead. Kuznetsova broke back and got to 2-2 but she was making far too many errors to be effective on court. She committed 23 in total for the match. Halep was thus able to break her opponent twice in the set and serve it out 6-2 after 33 minutes.

Kuznetsova left the court for a medical time out at the end of the set and returned with her one of her thighs heavily wrapped. She later confirmed that it was a hamstring injury. This hardly helped her cause as she was kept far behind the baseline trying to work her way into the court. She was no match for the precision hitting and footwork of Halep. “I was very aggressive. I played very fast…Is my style to play fast and to take the ball very early. She’s more defensive than me. She’s playing more far from the court. So my point was today my tactic was to play fast, to play very close to the ball, and just to open the angles.” Halep said of her game plan.

Like Errani, Kuznetsova found herself scrambling behind the baseline and forced to be far too defensive on a day that required them to be offensive-minded if they wanted to win. Halep worked her way into the set and raced to a 4-1 lead. Kuznetsova got one of the breaks back for 2-4 but Halep continued to pile on the pressure and broke back immediately to serve for the match 5-2. It looked for a moment that Halep would be unable to serve it out as she double faulted three times in the final game but she got herself together and continued to push her opponent around until finally Kuznetsova dumped another forehand into the net. Halep won 6-2 6-3 in 79 minutes.

Kuznetsova was broken six times in the match which was no surprise as she was only winning 43% of her first serve points and 35% on her second serve. Halep was significantly better in both areas as she won 57% on her first serve and 50% on her second serve. This would be Halep and Petkovic’s 4th meeting with Halep leading 2-1. “It will be a tough match, for sure. It’s a little pressure because it’s semifinal, but I feel good. I feel my game. I feel prepared for the next match. For sure I will try everything to win.” Halep said of the upcoming semifinals.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas Play for the Men’s Championship

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Novak Djokovic this week in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

A year ago, Novak Djokovic experienced quite an embarrassing debacle.  After the unvaccinated Djokovic was initially granted an exemption and allowed to enter Australia, he was later detained, and eventually deported and prevented from competing at this tournament.  His refusal to get vaccinated continues to prevent Novak from competing in North American tournaments, missing Indian Wells, Miami, Canada, Cincinnati, and the US Open last year. 

 

But at the events Djokovic has been allowed to participate in over the past seven months, he has been nearly unstoppable.  Since the beginning of Wimbledon last June, he is now 37-2, with five titles.  Novak comes into this championship match on a 16-match winning streak, with seven of those victories against top 10 opposition.  With a win on Sunday, Djokovic not only ties Rafael Nadal in their ongoing race for history with 22 Major titles, but he also regains the World No.1 ranking, despite all the tennis he’s missed.

However, standing in his way is a hungry and confident Stefanos Tsitsipas.  This is the Greek’s second Major final, and the second time he’s encountered Djokovic in this round of a Slam.  Two years ago in the championship match of Roland Garros, Tsitsipas secured the first two sets, before losing to Novak in five.  If Stefanos can win one more set on Sunday, he’ll not only win his first Major title, he’ll also become the World No.1 for the first time.

Also on Sunday, the women’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, who have won six Majors as a team, face Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, who are vying for their first Major as a team. 


Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Novak Djokovic (4) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic’s excellence in the latter rounds of the Australian Open is rivaled only by Nadal’s excellence at Roland Garros.  Novak is now 19-0 in the semifinals and finals of this tournament, which is quite staggering.  He’s also won his last 27 matches at this event, and his last 40 in Australia in general, a streak that dates back over five years.  While Novak suffered a hamstring injury a week before this fortnight, he has still advanced to this final rather easily, dropping only one set through six matches.

Tsitsipas has now reached the semifinals or better in four of the last five years at the Australian Open, but this is his first time reaching the final.  He enjoys plenty of Greek support at this event, and appears to have some extra swagger in his step during this fortnight.  Stefanos has dropped three sets to this stage, and has been superb at saving break points.  Through six matches, he has saved 44 of 53 break points faced.

Both men feel fully at home on Rod Laver Arena, and have described it as their favorite court.  But this is their first meeting on RLA.  They’ve met plenty of times on other courts though, in a rivalry that’s been thoroughly dominated by Djokovic.  The Serbian leads 10-2, and has claimed their last nine matches.  That includes four matches that took place in 2022, in which Novak won eight of their nine sets.  They played three times within a six-week period this past fall on indoor hard courts, with their closest and best matchup taking place in the semifinals of Bercy, where Djokovic prevailed in a final-set tiebreak.

Djokovic is undeniably a huge favorite to win his 10th Australian Open.  But that common knowledge takes a lot of pressure off Tsitsipas, who was so close to defeating Novak the last time they met in a Slam final.  Djokovic has been rather unbothered by all competition during this tournament, even with an injured hamstring.  Can Stefanos pull off one of the bigger surprises in recent tennis history?  I expect him to challenge Novak on Sunday, but Tsitsipas’ backhand remains a liability. And with Djokovic determined to avenge what he sees as mistreatment a year ago in Australia, a Novak loss would be truly surprising.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina Play for the Women’s Championship

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Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

2022 was a trying year for Aryna Sabalenka.  She completely lost her form on her second serve, striking double-digit double faults in many of her matches.  And in her third Major semifinal within a 14-month period, she again lost in heartbreaking fashion, by a score of 6-4 in the third for the third straight time.  Many athletes never recover from such issues and scar tissue.  But in just the first month of 2023, and after working with a biomechanics specialist to fix her serve, a calmer, more confident Sabalenka has achieved her first Major singles final.

 

2022 was a milestone year for Elena Rybakina.  Six months ago, the 23-year-old had only won two WTA titles at smaller events, and reached one Major quarterfinal.  Then she surprised the tennis world by winning Wimbledon this past July.  However, she was granted no ranking points due to the controversial backlash to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes.  And in the ensuing months, Elena was often banished to outer courts at bigger events, including this one, with court assignments unbefitting of a reigning Wimbledon champion.  Rybakina used all of this as motivation, and has achieved her second Major final just six months after her first.

Also on Saturday, the men’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Will an Aussie team triumph for a second year in a row?  Wild cards Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler will face Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski, in a first Major final for both of these partnerships. 


Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is a perfect 10-0 in 2023, and 20-0 in sets.  This is the fourth time out of the last six Majors she has advanced to the semifinals or better, and she already owns two Slam titles in women’s doubles with Elise Mertens.  Regardless of Saturday’s result, Aryna will reach a new career-high of No.2 on Monday.

Rybakina had lost five of her last eight matches heading into this fortnight, but has found her form as the event has progressed.  She has dropped only one set through six matches, to last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins.  Elena will debut inside the top 10 on Monday, as high as No.8 if she wins this final.  And she would be solidly inside the top five with her points from Wimbledon.

Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three matches have gone three sets.  In fact in all three, Sabalenka won the first and third sets, while Rybakina won the second.  They’ve played four years ago in Wuhan, two years ago in Abu Dhabi, and two years ago at Wimbledon. 

Aryna’s vastly-improved serve and demeanor have been crucial in advancing her to her first Major singles final.  But can she avoid double faulting, and remain calm, in what is the biggest match of her career?

No player’s serve has been more effective during this tournament than Rybakina’s.  As per Tumaini Carayol on Twitter, more than 50% of Elena’s serves have gone unreturned, which results in a lot of easy points.  And no player remains more calm on court than Rybakina, despite the berating comments her coach may share during the match

I expect Elena’s experience winning Wimbledon six months ago to prove extremely valuable on Saturday, and slightly favor Rybakina to win her second Major.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Coach Of Elena Rybakina Dismisses Allegations Of Poor Behavior At Australian Open

Stefano Vukov explains why he believes his actions were appropriate during Rybakina’s semi-final win over Aryna Sabalenka.

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Image via AUS Open twitter

The coach of Elena Rybakina has denied accusations that he was berating his player during her clash with Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open by saying he was just doing his job. 

 

Stefano Vukov was seen multiple times during Rybakina’s semi-final match being highly animated and making a series of critical gestures towards his player when she produced mistakes. The display prompted criticism on social media with former player Laura Robson saying on Eurosport ‘I don’t know how she (Rybakina) copes. He seems to be so negative on the side.”

Croatian-born Vukov has been working with the reigning Wimbledon champion since 2019 and previously coached Anhelina Kalinina. He was briefly a player on the Futures and Challenger Tour before going to America to study. Growing up his family left Croatia when he was a child due to the war and he spent roughly 15 years living in Italy.

“It’s easy to just take clips and then make something controversial. This is part of our sport, it’s normal,” Vukov told Fox Sports Australia when quizzed about his behaviour. 
“There’s 10,000 people out there, to get the attention of the player is definitely not easy and people don’t understand that. I have to scream out something if she’s off track.
“People can interpret that how they want but at the end of the day we’re just doing our job. Coaching is now allowed and she’s using it in the best possible way.”

This year is the first time that coaching is allowed during matches at the Australian Open but it is only allowed if players and coaches are on the same side of the court and there is no hindrance towards their opponent.  

Continuing to hit back at the criticism, Rybakina’s mentor says during the match there are key moments where he needs to remind her of certain tactics. Dismissing suggestions from some that his approach is heavy-handed in any way. 

“I think with all the emotions, sometimes the player doesn’t understand which situation of the match they are, which is absolutely normal,” he said. 
“You know, you’re flowing, you’re into a rhythm, which has happened also yesterday, for example, against Azarenka. A set, 3-1 up, two breakpoints. She stopped playing, Elena, for a couple of games, for example, instead of going for the point a little bit more.
“There are moments we try to remind her, Hey, this is the moment to push. This is the moment to defend.
“It’s normal. There are moments of the match the player doesn’t remember, for example, or in a pressure point, which side to defend more, where to serve more.
“We are there to remind them. So obviously I think that coaching is very important. I think that the player, if the player wants to listen, obviously, they should use it as much as possible, because there is some matches that a few points make the difference. Look at the beginning of yesterday. 3-2 down, two bad choices. That’s it. That’s it. She could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up.
“I don’t know, something like this. Not to be negative, but it’s just our job, right? That’s what we are there for.”

In a previous interview with Tennis Majors last year, Vukov said he and Rybakina clicked together due to ‘his energy against her calmness.’ He also described the world No.25 as  ‘a hardworking perfectionist, which sometimes works against her because sometimes she gets frustrated when things are not perfect.’

Rybakina will play Aryna Sabalenka in the Australian Open final on Saturday. As a result of her run in Melbourne, she will crack the top 10 next week for the first time regardless of how she performs in the final. 

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