Marin Cilic Continues To Blossom In The Shadow Of The Big Four
LONDON: At the start of the Aegon Championships the three title favourites were Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic. One name left out was former US Open champion Marin Cilic, who continues to play in the shadows of the elite.
Unlike the top three seeds, Cilic remains in the draw at The Queen’s Club. On Thursday he impressed the London crowd with an emphatic 6-0, 6-4, win over 19-year-old Stefan Kozlov. The disparity in experience between the two was noticeable from the onset. Former US Open champion Cilic was targeting his sixth quarter-final in his 11th consecutive year playing at The Queen’s Club. In comparison 19-year-old qualifier Kozlov found himself playing a top 10 player for the first time in his career.
“I approached today as any other day. Especially when you’re in this kind of a tournament, playing on grass and playing a youngster like Kozlov, you have to be ready from the first point.” Said Cilic.
Cilic’s power and speed overwhelmed the American during what was a clinical first set performance from the Croat. During the 24-minute display, he dropped only two points behind his serve as he benefited heavily from Kozlov’s unforced error count.
Producing such an outstanding display, Cilic soon had to contend with the crowd cheering on the underdog. When Kozlov claimed his first game of the match in the second set, a huge roar erupted around centre court. Still, it failed to disrupt the fourth seed and his stronghold in the match. A disastrous Kozlov service game, featuring a quartet of errors, extended his lead to a set and a break. The one-sided triumph was concluded a couple games later when the Croat hit a clean forehand winner on match point.
“I think I played really well. Served extremely good. I think he was struggling a bit with his serve, so didn’t have such a great rhythm.” He reflected afterwards.
A run of good form
As the best players in the world currently struggle to find consistency in their game, Cilic is having more success. This week is the sixth time he has reached the quarterfinals of an ATP tournament since April. Overshadowing Djokovic’s tally of four and Murray’s two within the same period. Still, the Croat continues to play in the shadow of the Big Four (Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer). Some might find the scenario frustrating, but Cilic sees it as an opportunity.
“The media attention is always towards the small part of players, and that’s the way it goes.” The 28-year-old explained.
“For me, I don’t mind that. Just it’s less talking for me, which is good (smiling). I’m still focused on myself to improve.” He later added.
Cilic currently has a losing head-to-head record against every member of the Big Four, but has defeated them all at some point. Asked if that fact he isn’t in the media spotlight compared to his rivals enhances his game, the Croat played down the significance. Instead, it is his own objectives that are pushing him to succeed.
“I’m setting up some goals for myself, some targets with the game where I want to go to, and that’s what’s driving me.”
The individual focus of the Croat has taken him to a win away from returning to his career high of sixth in the world. In order to regain the position he needs to defeat Donald Young on Friday, a player he hasn’t played since 2015.
“I’m pushing myself forward, improving week after week, and hoping that definitely at the end of the year when I’m going to be looking back that I’m going to have a great season.” He concluded.
This week eight top-10 players are participating in tournaments. Cilic is one of only two that is still participating. The other is Roger Federer at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle.
Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Week Begins on Sunday
The round of 16 begins on Sunday in Paris.
The highest-ranked players in the world named Lorenzo, Italians Lorenzo Musetti and Lorenzo Sonego, face tall tasks in the fourth round. Musetti plays World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz, while Sonego plays Karen Khachanov, who has advanced to the semifinals at the last two Majors. Plus the finalists at the last Slam, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, both play their fourth round matches on Sunday.
On the women’s side, Elina Svitolina faces the toughest test yet in her impressive return from child birth, in ninth-seeded Daria Kasatkina, a semifinalist here a year ago. And the FTT have finally scheduled a WTA match for the night session, where Major champs Aryna Sabalenka and Sloane Stephens will collide.
Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s four most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule. Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.
Karen Khachanov (11) vs. Lorenzo Sonego – 11:00am on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
While Khachanov’s recent Slam success has come at hard court Majors, this remains his best Major. Karen is now 20-6 at Roland Garros, and has reached the second week in six of his seven appearances. However, he’s just 1-4 in the round of 16 at this event.
Sonego outlasted Khachanov’s close friend and frequent doubles partner, Andrey Rublev, in five sets on Friday. This is now a third career appearance in the round of 16 at a Major for the 28-year-old Italian, one of which came here three years ago. However, he’s 0-2 in those prior appearances.
They have played three times before, with Khachanov taking two of those three meetings, though they’ve split the two that occurred on clay. All of those matches occurred between four-to-five years ago. On Sunday, I give the slight edge to Karen. He has the bigger game which can more easily dictate play, and a huge edge in experience in the second week of Slams.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Lorenzo Musetti (17) – Third on Court Philippe-Chatrier
Alcaraz is now 33-3 in 2023, and has lost only one set through his first three matches in Paris. Carlitos is looking to equal his best result at this tournament, when he advanced to the quarterfinals a year ago. But his potential road to the final is anything but easy, starting with the uber-talented Musetti on Sunday, then potentially Tsitsipas in the quarters, and Djokovic in the semifinals.
Musetti has not dropped any sets to this stage, impressively taking out Cam Norrie in the third round, losing just seven games in the match. This equals Lorenzo’s best career result at a Major to date, when he reached the round of 16 in Paris two years ago, and was even up two sets against Djokovic, yet only managed one game in the last three sets.
This is only the second of what will likely be many tour-level encounters between 20-year-old Alcaraz and 21-year-old Musetti. When they played last summer in the final of Hamburg on clay, Lorenzo prevailed 6-4 in the third after nearly three hours. But in the best-of-five format, the red-hot and super-fit Carlitos is the favorite, though I’m quite curious to see how seriously Musetti can challenge Alcaraz on this big stage.
Elina Svitolina vs. Daria Kasatkina (9) – Third on Court Suzanne-Lenglen
Kasatkina was just 12-12 this season, and is defending semifinal points here from a year ago. Yet she has performed very well under that pressure, winning all of her matches decisively in straight sets. This is easily her strongest Major, where she owns 20 career wins, while she’s yet to accumulate double-digit wins at any other.
But this is also Svitolina’s best Slam, where she’s now 25-9, with three previous quarterfinals. And while this is just her fifth WTA-level tournament since becoming a mother, returning to action only two months ago, she’s on an eight-match winning streak, coming off a title run a week ago in Strasbourg. Elina survived two consecutive three-setters to reach this fourth round contest.
And Svitolina has completely dominated their history, with a record of 6-0. That includes a clay court match five years ago in Rome, which is only one of two occasions Kasatkina has even managed to take a set off of her. So despite Elina’s lack of match play this past year, she should be favored to achieve her fourth French Open quarterfinal.
Sloane Stephens vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2) – Not Before 8:15pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier
Sabalenka is an excellent 32-5 this year, and yet to lose a set in Paris. This is the farthest she has ever advanced in this city, though she’s reached the semis or better at every other Major. Aryna is looking to win her fourth title of the season, and her second Slam in a row.
Stephens’ Major title came nearly six years ago in New York, though she did reach another final here a year later, when she was even up a set and a break before losing to Simona Halep. Sloane had quite a rough start to her year, but has now won 12 of her last 14 matches on clay, including a title run at an ITF-level event a month ago. And unlike Sabalenka, Roland Garros is her best Major, where she’s now 35-11 lifetime, and she’s reached the second week in nine of her last 11 appearances.
Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three of those matches went the distance. I expect another tight encounter on Sunday evening, but Aryna must be considered the favorite based on her recent form, and how well her big serve and groundstrokes have been clicking.
Other Notable Matches on Sunday:
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Elise Mertens (28) – Pavlyuchenkova was the runner-up here two years ago, but this run to the round of 16 is a surprise, as she was just 8-9 on the year coming into this event after missing most of 2022 due to a knee injury. Mertens is 18-11 this season, and has not dropped a set to this stage, upsetting third-seeded Jessica Pegula in the last round. They have split two previous meetings, both of which took place in 2017.
Novak Djokovic (3) vs. Juan Pablo Varillas – Djokovic claimed all nine sets he played in the first week, even though four of them went to a tiebreak. Varillas has amazingly won three five-setters, coming from two-sets-down in the first two. The 27-year-old had never won a match at a Major prior to this fortnight, and is the first Peruvian to advance this far at Roland Garros in nearly 30 years.
Karolina Muchova vs. Elina Avanesyan (LL) – Muchova is vying for her fourth Slam quarterfinal, and her first since Wimbledon 2021, as injuries have interrupted her career. Avanesyan is a 20-year-old lucky loser who upset Belinda Bencic in the first round, and is appearing in only her second main draw at a Major.
Sebastian Ofner (Q) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) – Tsitsipas has only dropped one set thus far, while Ofner survived a five-setter against Fabio Fognini in the last round, and is another 27-year-old debuting in the second week of a Slam.
Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.
‘Disciplined’ Iga Swiatek Cruises Into Roland Garros Second Week, Rybakina Withdraws
Iga Swiatek is into the second week of Roland Garros after a dominant performance against Xinyu Wang.
Defending champion Iga Swiatek cruised into the second week of Roland Garros while Elena Rybakina was forced to withdraw from the tournament.
The world number one was in a class of her own as she thrashed Xinyu Wang 6-0 6-0 in a 52 minute masterclass.
After suffering mini-blips in her opening two matches, Swiatek was back to her dominant best to reach the last 16.
Swiatek explained after the match that she was happy with her discipline and compared this win to her previous two matches, “You know, just the fact that I know I keep feeling better and better every day and that’s kind of what I wanted to achieve in this tournament,” Swiatek said in her post-match press conference.
“I’m glad that I kind of feel the rhythm a little bit better on every match. I’m just happy that I was disciplined till the end. Well, it was just easier for me to implement all that stuff that I’m talking about with my coach and to tactically play a little bit better.
“First two matches I felt like I kind of need to play against the conditions, but today I was able to, like, control the ball a little bit more. So it was easier for me to like adapt some more complicated — maybe not complicated, but I
wasn’t thinking about the wind.
“I was more thinking about where to play and how to play because it was just easier to control the ball after few hours on Philippe-Chatrier.”
Swiatek has had a fairly comfortable opening week despite a couple of mini-scares as she has only dropped eight games so far in Paris.
However there is a risk that the easy run so far could be a hinderance when facing tougher opposition later on in the tournament.
Swiatek said she tries to prevent laziness as much as possible and tries to remain positive at all times, “But on the other hand I always try to kind of be careful, because you don’t want to get lazy after winning these matches,” Swiatek claimed.
“It’s never easy to win these matches. But on the other hand, sometimes all your head can remember is the score, and I always want to kind of be ready for, you know, every situation.
“So I don’t feel like it’s a problem for me, because as you said, I had many matches like that. But I just try to kind of take as much positive things like confidence and just, you know, feeling that I can play my tennis.
“But kind of also reset from all the other stuff and the expectations and just, you know, go another match like it’s a new one.”
Swiatek will look to continue her winning form as she searches for a third Roland Garros title.
Next for Swiatek is Bianca Andreescu or Lesia Tsurenko on Monday.
Rybakina Withdraws Due To Illness
As Swiatek looks ahead to the fourth round, her nearest rival in the top half of the draw Elena Rybakina has withdrawn from Roland Garros.
The Kazakh has been suffering from Illness and just minutes before her match with Sara Sorribes Tormo, the fourth seed confirmed her withdrawal.
Speaking to the press Rybakina confirmed it was a viral illness, “I was not feeling good already yesterday and the day before, so I didn’t sleep two nights and had some fever,” the Kazakh said.
“Yeah, well, I saw the doctor, and they said that actually it’s all a virus here in Paris. Yeah, I guess with my allergy, immune system just went down
and I picked up something. As I said, I was not sleeping well two days. I had fever, headache.
“Today I really tried on the warmup, but I feel that the right decision is to withdraw, because it’s really tough to play with these conditions. Yeah, of course I’m really upset not be able to play, but I guess that’s life.
“There is a lot of ups and downs. Today I just wanted to give 100%, and obviously I’m far from being 100%. Yeah, I was actually coming positive here, but as I said, you never know how you’re gonna feel. Was unlucky for
me. Yeah, I just try to recover and do my best to be prepared for the grass season already.”
Rybakina will look to be back healthy for Wimbledon where she is the defending champion.
Coco Gauff Overcomes Opening Set Blip To Reach Second Week At Roland Garros
Coco Gauff is into the last 16 at Roland Garros but not without a scare from Mirra Andreeva.
Coco Gauff overcame an opening set blip to defeat Mirra Andreeva 6-7(5) 6-1 6-1 to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros.
Last year’s finalist is into the fourth round at Roland Garros after a dominant last two sets.
The opening set was tough for the American to break through with the talented 16 year-old holding her ground.
However Gauff found the winning formula to secure her place in the last 16 where she faces either Anna Karolina Schmiedlova or Kayla Day.
A confident start was produced by both players as Andreeva found her range early with a couple of powerful backhand winners.
Andreeva’s impressive start was evident as she broke in the fourth game displaying the fearlessness that saw her reach the third round in Madrid.
However Gauff came back strong and remained resilient in sticking to her game-plan, using her own power to counter-punch Andreeva’s game.
Despite having a break lead on two occasions, Gauff’s returning quality was too much for the 16 year-old as the American pulled it back on serve.
After a slow start, Gauff started to find her variety and range as she constructed some effective baseline points against a stubborn Andreeva.
Gauff had the opportunity to serve for the opening set after converting her fourth break point in the ninth game.
The American couldn’t take her chance though as more fearless returning from Andreeva mixed with good all-court intelligence saw her break back for 5-5.
After being unable to convert important break points, Gauff was made to pay for her lack of clinical edge as Andreeva was tactically stronger in the important moments to take the tiebreak 7-5 in a 62 minute set.
The start of the second saw Andreeva carry the momentum but Gauff turned up the intensity on serve as she held both her service games to love.
That gave the American confidence to hit with more margin and really take the match to Andreeva as the 16 year-old couldn’t match Gauff’s overall quality.
Last year’s finalist broke twice in the second set to level the match at one set all as she produced much smarter tennis to nullify Andreeva’s attacking options.
The sixth seed went from strength to strength as she created a break point in every return game dominate the third set as Andreeva showed her mental and physical fatigue.
Gauff broke three times to seal the deciding set and book a place in the second week.
After the match Gauff admitted it was not an easy match but praised Andreeva’s game, “Mirra is super young and she has a big future,” Gauff was quoted by the BBC as saying.
“I remember I was playing here as a 16-year-old. She has a lot to look forward to and you guys will probably see many of the matches between the two of us.
“I knew going in today it was not going to be an easy match and she proved that she belongs where she is and belongs to go even further. I love this court. It’s a packed house today. I notice you come for the third and fifth sets so I’m glad we can make it entertaining for you guys!
“Paris is my favourite city and I was really happy with the crowd today. I wasn’t sure if you guys were going to be cheering for me. You usually do but I know Mirra has a lot of fans but I was pretty impressed that it was quite 50/50 and I think that makes the match even more enjoyable for us to play.”
Gauff will hope to set up a rematch of last year’s final in the quarter-finals against Iga Swiatek.
Before then, the American will take on Anna Karolina Schmiedlova or Kayla Day in the last 16.
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