British Women's Charge At The US Open Falters As Konta And Watson Fall At The First Hurdle - UBITENNIS
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British Women’s Charge At The US Open Falters As Konta And Watson Fall At The First Hurdle

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Johanna Konta

British number one Johanna Konta became the heaviest casualty on day one at the US Open as she was outclassed by Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic.

The world number 78 recovered from two breaks down in the opening set to give world number seven Konta a scare before the Brit managed to edge over the line in set number one. The level of tennis which the Serb had produced in flashes midway through the first set resurfaced in the final three games of the second and through much of the decider as one break in each set was enough to get Krunic over the line.

This win marks just the second top 10 win of her career and afterwards the Serb was delighted with the level of tennis she had produced. She said: “I feel amazing obviously. I’m happy with the way I played and with the way I fought. She’s an awesome player so I had to be at my best from the first point.”

Meanwhile, Heather Watson also left Flushing Meadows much earlier than she would have liked after losing in the first round at the US Open for the seventh year in a row. The British number two succumbed to world number 46 Alize Cornet this time around in straight sets 6-4, 6-4.

Konta’s collapse paves the way for Krunic’s headline making win

Konta asserted her dominance early on in the contest, breaking her opponent in the third game with a backhand return of serve winner up the line following a double fault and forehand unforced error from her Serbian opponent.

The British number one was seemingly cruising towards taking the opening set after securing a double break to take a 4-1 lead, but Krunic began to raise her level. The Serb secured one of the breaks back with some brave hitting, taking on a backhand down the line to leave Konta flat footed as it clipped the top of the tape on its way to being a winner. With Konta’s lead now reduced to just one game nerves got the better of the Brit as a couple of double faults and rushed points left the Brit facing two more break points. The recent Wimbledon semi-finalist saved the first with a trademark backhand down the line winner, but that weapon let her down on the following point as the Serb levelled the score at four games all.

With momentum on her side it came as a big surprise that Krunic’s level suddenly dropped dramatically, with a double fault and poor unforced errors leaving her 0-40 down. Konta took full advantage and broke her opponent to love before closing out the set in a far more comfortable service game than her two prior ones to take the first set 6-4.

Konta had opportunities to stamp her authority on the match early in the second set but was unable to capitalise on two break point chances in Krunic’s opening service game, or another chance in the third game. Those missed opportunities came back to bite the Brit and helped the Serb grow in confidence with her game.

The seventh seed came through a marathon game on serve to level up at 3-3 but only won one point thereafter as Krunic took complete control. Konta’s groundstrokes became erratic and she failed to make returns of serve back onto court as two holds to love helped the Serb take the set 6-3 to force a decider out on Grandstand.

Having played one of her worst sets of tennis in her year to date Konta struggled to regroup early in the final set as a double fault left her down a break at 2-1. With the prospect of securing the biggest win in her career since defeating then world number four Petra Kvitova in New York in 2014, the moment looked to get a bit too much for the Serb. Krunic was brave and did well to stave off three break points, but her opponent was not to be denied at the fourth time of asking as the seventh seed ripped a cross court backhand winner to get back on even terms.

The Serb did not fade away despite losing her advantage and broke once more to pile the pressure on Konta, who had reached the fourth round here the past two years. There was to be no comeback from the world number seven this time around as Krunic wrapped up victory in two hours and 16 minutes 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Watson’s woes in New York continue

Watson was always going to be facing a stern test against an opponent ranked 28 places above her in the WTA World Rankings and could not have got off to worse start, dropping serve in the opening game of the match.

The Brit had half a chance to break back in the sixth game up 0-30 and at deuce on her opponent’s serve, but Cornet, once ranked as high as 11 in the world, dug deep and kept Watson frustrated as she clung on to her break advantage.

Serving to stay in the match, Watson saved three set points in the ninth game with a couple of unreturned serves and a backhand down the line winner. The Brit then had half a chance to break back at 15-30, but the Frenchwoman hung tough as she had done throughout the match so far to seal the set 6-4.

There was to be no Big Apple dreaming for the Brit as Watson found no great joy in the second set either. Despite hanging in with her opponent up to four games all, the Brit’s game collapsed at a crucial time. The British number two squandered several game points, hitting a double fault to let one slip by before a few errors resulted in her serve being broken leaving Cornet to serve for the match.

The Frenchwoman looked solid from the baseline throughout the match and used that to full advantage, closing out the set and the match to complete a 6-4, 6-4 victory after one hour and 36 minutes of match play out on Court 4.

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Iga Swiatek And Coco Gauff Survive Fourth Round Obstacles In Rome

Iga Swiatek’s bid for a third Rome title continues after a straight sets win over Angelique Kerber.

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Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff are into the quarter-finals in Rome after surviving fourth round tests against Angelique Kerber and Paula Badosa respectively.

Starting with Swiatek, the Pole secured a 7-5 6-3 victory over former Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber.

The world number one is aiming to win her third Rome title and started the match with aggressive serving.

After securing the break in the eighth game, Swiatek was broken back in the following game as Kerber increased the intensity on return.

However a hard-fought break of serve in the twelfth game sealed the set for Swiatek who broke on her third set point.

The second set didn’t start as well for Swiatek who seemingly spent a lot of energy on winning the first set as she lacked key moments of concentration with Kerber breaking in the opening game.

As expected though Swiatek bounced back well claiming two breaks of serve before serving out the match to love.

Next up for Swiatek is Madison Keys in a rematch from their semi-final contest in Madrid last week which the Pole won.

Gauff Edges Past Rejuvenated Badosa

In the other big contest of the day Coco Gauff prevented Paula Badosa from reaching a second consecutive Rome quarter-final as the American claimed a 5-7 6-4 6-1 victory.

The contest lasted almost two and a half hours as Gauff was forced to work hard against a rejuvenated Badosa.

However the former Roland Garros finalist powered through the third set to set up a meeting with seventh seed Qinwen Zheng.

The Australian Open finalist defeated Naomi Osaka in straight sets as both Gauff and Swiatek’s quarter-final matches will take place on Tuesday.

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Naomi Osaka Gaining In confidence As Rome Run Comes To An End

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Naomi Osaka believes there are plenty of positives to be drawn from her performance at this year’s Italian Open after getting knocked out in the fourth round on Monday. 

The four-time Grand Slam champion was denied a place in the last eight by seventh seed Qinwen Zheng who prevailed 6-2, 6-4. It was the first time Osaka had played a top 10 player since starting her comeback in January following the birth of her first child. During her latest match, she dropped serve four times and only managed to break Zheng once. 

“I’m pretty happy that I was able to play this match because I will learn a lot from it. I’ll learn that the level’s not that different,” Osaka told reporters.
“It’s kind of just more key moments I would say, staying mentally very resilient in myself and my abilities.”

Despite her latest defeat, 26-year-old Osaka has enjoyed a breakthrough in Rome where she beat Daria Kasatkina and Marta Kostyuk earlier in the tournament. Those triumphs are her first wins over top 20 players on clay in her career. 

“I think I definitely feel a lot more confident leaving than when I came,” she said. 
“I hope that I can learn a lot from the match I played today and apply it and do really well in Paris (at the French Open).”

So far this year Osaka has won 11 out of 20 Tour-level matches played with Rome being the first tournament where she has recorded three consecutive wins. She also reached the quarter-finals of the Doha Open in February. 

Due to her current ranking, the Japanese player will be undeeded at the French Open and could pose a big danger to the seeds if they are drawn against her in the early rounds. However, she has yet to go beyond the third round in Paris. 

“I’m probably going to do a really solid training block again. That’s been working out for me, so hopefully it works out even more,” she said of her preparations for the event. 

The French Open will begin on Sunday 26th May. 

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Can Defensive Tennis Still Be A Success Story In Women’s Tennis?

Slam triumphs, top rankings: in just a few years we have witnessed the rise and fall of a certain way of playing tennis. So what’s really been happening? Kerber, Halep, and Wozniacki have been the latest successful performers of defensive gameplay.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

The last two WTA 1000 events, Miami and Madrid, whose final featured Danielle Collins vs. Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek vs. Aryna Sabalenka respectively, have confirmed a trend that in recent seasons seems more and more entrenched in the women’s tour: the prevalence of offensive tennis over defensive tennis.

Compared to a few years ago, things seem to have profoundly changed, to the point of almost being reversed. This does not mean that a certain type of “reactive” game has disappeared, nor that tennis based on the effectiveness of the defensive component has been scrapped. Yet, it is a matter of fact that players who rely predominantly on this approach struggle to break through and reach the top positions, unlike just a few years ago.

Before trying to identify the reasons for this phenomenon, it is necessary to verify whether the thesis is true. Here are some data. Below are the WTA rankings of the past years starting from 2015. I have highlighted in yellow the players who, in my opinion, can be associated with a defensive type of tennis.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Carattere, numero

Descrizione generata automaticamente

A first comment on the 2015-17 period and the players I highlighted. Few doubts about Wozniacki, Kerber, Svitolina, and Errani. These are athletes who were never afraid of engaging in long rallies, and who often strove to turn the match into an endurance challenge, an arm wrestle over durability. It was not logical for them to seek quick and rushed points.

Including Simona Halep may seem less obvious. However, in my view, in her approach there prevails a tendency to rely on a “reaction” strategy, hitting back at her opponent’s choices; a counter-attack game, specular to an idea of pure aggressive tennis based on systematically and immediately getting the upper hand in rallies.

That is why I also highlighted Radwanska and Sevastova. In their case, it was mainly their lack of power that forced them to leverage their opponent’s power. As a result, hitting a winner could not be their first option. Winning points by eliciting errors from their opponent was far easier, simply by lengthening the rallies.

I was tempted to include Stephens and Kuznetsova as well, but in their case the matter is particularly complex because they are such eclectic players that they are difficult to confine to just one category. In fact, on the occasion of Sloane Stephens’ victory in the 2017 US Open, I decided to describe Stephens as “indefinable.”

Now let’s move on to the next three years, 2018 to 2020. 

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Carattere, numero

Descrizione generata automaticamente

2018 represents the pinnacle of defensive tennis, with four of its icons at the top of the rankings and three more in the top 15. After all, 2018 is the year that sees Wozniacki win in Australia (defeating Halep in the final), Halep in Paris, and Kerber at Wimbledon. At the WTA Finals in Singapore, Elina Svitolina reaps the most prestigious title of her career.

If 2018 is to be considered the zenith of defensive tennis, since 2019 there has been quite a crushing decline, confirmed by the rankings of the last three years, 2021 to 2023. 

Here follows a chart of the results in the Slams and WTA Finals from 2015 to 2024.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Parallelo, Carattere

Descrizione generata automaticamente

The final Top 10 ranking 2023 featured no player with a markedly defensive imprint. Daria Kasatkina was the only flagbearer holding on in the top 20.  Players deploying aggressive tennis now seem to have taken the lead in operations.

Which are the causes that have led to the current scenario? I have identified three, which may also have been acting jointly.

1) Lack of generational turnover

One possible thesis is that the structural conditions of the women’s tour haven’t changed significantly, but that we are simply going through an episodic lack of generational turnover in defensive tennis. A temporary blackout which is bound to be overcome over time.

Wozniacki (born 1990) and Kerber (born 1988) were halted first by physical issues and then by maternity leave. Maternity also for Svitolina (born 1994), while Halep (born 1991) has been sidelined for almost two years by her doping case. In essence, all of the strongest defensive tennis players have disappeared from the top ranks due to factors unrelated to the court; somewhat prematurely, and that is also why there has not been time to find successors.

On the other hand, as of today, there are not many players aged under 30 on the horizon. I would mention Mertens (born 1995) and Kasatkina (born 1997). If we take into account that a possible alternative like Sorribes Tormo (best ranking 28) is 27, it’s quite hard to identify who can perpetuate defensive tennis.

2) Changed game conditions

For this second hypothesis, we are venturing along a complex and uneven path, which would require much more space for being addressed as it deserves. In short, the proposition holds that “slow” playing conditions favour defensive tennis, whereas “fast” playing conditions snugly fit with aggressive tennis. Should this hypothesis turn out to be grounded, organizers would simply have to decide to speed up or slow down the playing conditions and tables would be turned.

I recall the “very slow” 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore, won by Svitolina over Stephens.  As far as I am concerned, I do not have such data to suggest that in recent years the playing conditions have been sped up, thus penalizing defensive players. Almost certainly the last Finals (Guadalajara, Forth Worth, and Cancun) were played in faster conditions than the previous editions held in Asia, but it is far more complicated to prove this for the Slams and other major tournaments. 

I remember that when talking about playing conditions, not only the surface of the courts should be taken into account, but also the balls used (as well as humidity, altitude, etc). And for some essential data there no certainties, which means that the thesis is possible, but not provable.

3) Further growth of offensive players

Third hypothesis: in recent seasons new aggressive players who have risen to the very top have also enhanced the quality of their tennis, raising the bar to such heights which appear to be out of the reach of defensive players. Ultimately, offensive players have been making greater strides than defensive players.

I would say that such growth has manifested itself in two different directions. On the one hand, some players have further strengthened the offensive component, starting with the quality of their serve or and groundstrokes (as in the case of Rybakina and Sabalenka).

On the other, fewer “one-dimensional” tennis players have emerged. Currently we are seeing athletes who are comfortable not only when commanding the rally, but also when compelled to defend themselves. Let’s consider the latest year-end No. 1s: we went from Kerber/Halep (2016-18) to Barty/Swiatek (2019-2023). Well, both Barty and Swiatek were and are players capable of producing more wins than Angelique and Simona, but without going down when under pressure or scurrying and scrambling.

Wozniacki, Kerber, and Halep have relied on their great mobility and superior court coverage skills to reach the top. However, today No. 1 spot is held by a tennis player like Swiatek who, besides being a remarkable ball-striker, in terms of mobility is not at all inferior to Wozniacki & Co.

Indeed, my personal belief is that Iga is probably the best-moving tennis player since Steffi Graf. Maybe not yet when moving forward, but at least horizontally, off her right and left wing. In fact, as well as being endowed with a superlative rapidity and responsiveness, Swiatek possesses phenomenal coordination skills. A gift that enables her to organize her swing in very few moments, even if she is called upon to execute it at the end of a sprint or lunge, perhaps sliding. This means that those players who rely mainly on defensive skills are likely to find themselves lacking sufficient weapons to face an opponent with such qualities.

Conclusions

This is the current situation. What about the future? Since I do not possess a magic crystal ball, I do not feel like reciting a “de profundis” for defensive tennis. Things could change, especially in the long term.

In the short term, there is still the possibility that the “senior” players will be able to retrieve their best levels. After all, already last year at Wimbledon Svitolina was able to reach the semifinals after ousting Swiatek in the quarters. And probably if she had managed to defeat Vondrousova in the semifinals, in my opinion, she would have had very good chances against Jabeur, considering their records in finals (Ons 5 won and 8 lost, Elina 17 won and 5 lost).

Before being halted by Vondrousova, Svitolina had appeared as full of conviction, recharged by her maternity break. Which brings us back to the mental component, which can sometimes prove to be the extra weapon, capable of overshadowing physical-technical aspects.  If a defensive player endowed with an exceptional killer instinct were to burst into the WTA tour, quite different scenarios might open up.

Translated by Carla Montaruli

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