Maria Sharapova became the latest victim of Monica Niculescu and her box of tricks as she surprisingly lost 6-4 4-6 3-6 to the Romanian in the first round of the WTA Premier event in Doha.
The five-time Grand Slam champion, 30, is not the force she once was but she would certainly have expected to beat Niculescu, particularly as she was ranked 50 places higher than the World No.92 before the match.
However, the Romanian upset the odds to make it through and will probably face Magdalena Rybarikova in round two. Provided the Slovakian successfully negotiates her encounter with Omani wild card Fatma Al-Nabhani (World No.521), the Doha crowds can look forward to an exhibition of clever slices, drop shots and deft volleys when she plays Niculescu.
“I love it how I play and I like to be unique, and I think my slice forehand is a weapon,” the Romanian said during her press conference. “And when I feel good on the court, then I play relaxed, I can be good and can be dangerous.”
Sharapova was always likely to find the ever-inventive Niculescu tough to put away unless she produced something approaching her best form and, for most of the first set, she managed to do exactly that. The Russian opened the match with a flawless return game to break the Romanian to love, and then responded to Niculescu levelling the match at 2-2 by breaking her twice more to race into a 5-2 lead.
But Sharapova faltered when she was serving for the set and Niculescu dragged the score back to 5-4. And, although the Russian held serve to clinch the first set, her level of performance steadily dropped off as her Romanian opponent battled, sliced and hustled her way to a 6-4 scoreline to take the contest into a third set.
— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) 12 February 2018
Things got even worse for Sharapova in the decider as she failed to capitalise on an early break and then made a string of double faults and forehand unforced errors to lose three games in a row and gift Niculescu the set and the win.
In total, the Russian made 52 unforced errors and served 11 double faults in the match. Those are awful numbers, but she has coped with similar stats in the past by hitting just as many aces and winners. This time, however, she could only manage 31 winners and two aces, which was way short of what she needed.
“I did a good job of winning the longer rallies, even though that’s not really what I wanted to get myself into.” An upbeat Sharapova reflected about her performance.
“So, physically I felt good. I just got pretty passive in the end and starting making too many errors.”
Agnieszka Radwanska looked in danger of suffering a similar fate to Sharapova when she lost the opening set to Mona Barthel, who cracked 25 winners past the Pole to take it 6-3.
The 2012 Wimbledon finalist responded by stepping inside the court and being more aggressive in the second set in the hope of unsettling her opponent’s rhythm. It worked wonders, as Barthel suddenly found it much more difficult to time her shots. Before the German could fully adjust to the change, she was 4-0 down in the set and eventually lost it 6-3.
Radwanska initially kicked on in the decider and raced into a 5-2 lead. However, she wasted an incredible nine match points as she allowed Barthel to level the set at 5-5. Finally, the Pole took her tenth opportunity to close out the match and breathe a sigh of relief that she had not thrown it away. Sealing the marathon win 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. She is likely to play Petra Kvitova in the next round.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) 12 February 2018
In other matches, Dominika Cibulkova held her nerve to edge out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6(8), 6-4. The Slovak, who has only won back-to-back matches in one tournament so far this season, will take on seventh seed Caroline Garcia next. American world No.48 Cici Bellis also progressed after her opponent, Daria Kasatkina, retired with a neck injury.
Alize Cornet stuns Bianca Andreescu in Berlin
Andreescu was playing in the main draw of a WTA grass-court tournament for only the second time in her career after Wimbledon 2017.
Alize Cornet’s run at the Bett1 Open in Berlin continues as she managed to upset Bianca Andreescu 7-6(2), 7-5 in two hours and six minutes on Steffi Graff Stadion.
“At the beginning of the match I was feeling very good,” said Cornet. “I played some of my best tennis at the start of the match and I think I felt more comfortable than in the first round. The first match helped get me more comfortable on the surface but it was a huge battle playing a match that lasted over two hours and I am really happy that I got through”.
It was the number three seed who got off to a fast start being the more aggressive player earning two chances to break in the opening service game of the match but failed to convert. The very next game it was Cornet with three chances to take the lead and she did just that and it stayed on serve until 4-2 until Andreescu had a chance to break to go back on serve and she would get the break back.
At 5-4 the world number 63 reached set point but Andreescu managed to save it with one of her big serves and held serve before going back on the offensive. Earning another breakpoint but again couldn’t finish and the set would be decided by a tiebreaker.
Cornet ran away with the breaker jumping out to a 4-1 lead and would win it 7-2 to take the first set 7-6.
She carried the momentum into the second frame and in the first game she set up two breakpoints with a stunning forehand winner and broke to take a 1-0 lead. At 3-1 the world number 63 had a chance to go up a double break and she did just that breaking again to get a 4-1 lead but the Canadian responded right away by breaking right back the very next game.
At 4-3 the Toronto native had a break chance to go back on serve which she converted on to level the set at 4-4 and it stayed on serve for two more games until it Cornet managed to get the crucial break to take a 6-5 lead and serve out the match.
” She’s a really talented player, she plays amazing and she is dangerous on every surface but I think today my experience on grass helped me”. Cornet commented on her opponent.
She will now face either Garbine Muguruza or Elena Rybakina in the quarter-finals.
There were three other second round matches being played on Steffi Graff Stadium. The day started with another upset as Ekaterina Alexandrova beat the number two seed Elina Svitolina in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 in only an hour and 30 minutes.
Belinda Bencic, the number five seed, had no issue dispatching the Croat Petra Martic 6-3, 6-4. In the final match of the day, a third upset occurred when Madison Keys beat the top seed Aryna Sabalenka in three sets 6-4, 1-6, 5-7.
The action continues on Thursday with four more second round matches featuring the local favourite Angelique Kerber taking on Victoria Azarenka.
Berlin Round-up: Garbine Muguruza Cruises Past Cirstea In Berlin
The number six seed only needed 80 minutes to advance past her Romanian opponent.
Garbine Muguruza started her grass court season on the right foot beating Sorana Cirstea in straight sets 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 20 minutes on Steffi Graff Stadium.
She will next face Elena Rybakina who was pushed to three sets by the American Shelby Rodgers 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that lasted one hour and 43 minutes.
Angelique Kerber only needed one hour to dispatch the Japanese player Misaki Doi 6-2, 6-1 and after the match she gave her thoughts on what seemed like a comfortable first win on grass for the local favourite.
“It was a really solid match and it’s never easy to play a first match on a grass court, especially against a lefty as well, so I’m really happy about my performance and how I started the grass court season,” She said.
Kerber will now face the daunting task of playing the Belorussian Victoria Azarenka who beat another German Andrea Petkovic in a tough straight sets victory (6-4, 7-6).
In the other results of the day the Croat Petra Martic needed three sets to beat the American qualifier Asia Muhammad 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 to set up a second round match with Belinda Bencic.
In an all American battle Jessica Pegula only played 12 games against Hailey Baptiste who was forced to retire due to injury, Pegula will next face Karolina Pliskova in the next round.
The young Russian Veronika Kudermetova needed three sets to beat the Czech Karolina Muchova in a match that went two hours and 28 minutes 7-6, 5-7, 6-2. She will now face Liudmilla Samsonova who pulled off the only upset of the day by beating Marketa Vondrousova in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 (6).
Round two begins on Wednesday with four second round matches and will feature Elina Svitolina taking on Ekaterina Alexandrova, as well as Bianca Andreescu facing Alize Cornet.
bett1open Preview: The Berlin Anomaly
The WTA returns to try and conquer a city that offers vast potential to the tour.
London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin: the list of Western Europe’s major capitals is so familiar it almost rolls off the tongue. When it comes to the ATP and WTA calendars, however, one of them has long been conspicuous in its absence.
This week the bett1open, a WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, takes place in Berlin. It’s the first tour-level tennis of any kind in the city since 2008.
BERLIN: ‘POOR, BUT SEXY’
It’s not just in tennis terms that the German capital remains something of an anomaly, even 32 years after the Berlin Wall came down. Berlin is an instantly recognisable name in a list of the world’s capital cities, yet in many aspects the city is not even a leader within Germany itself. It’s not an industrial powerhouse like Stuttgart, nor a financial hub like Frankfurt or Munich. It can’t even stake a strong claim in Germany’s national sport, football, where it is dwarfed by the footballing heartland in the western state of Nordrhein-Westfalen (home to the cities of Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Mönchengladbach, to name but a few). As recently as 2013, there was no team from the capital city in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, an unheard-of situation in all other European nations.
Instead, modern Berlin has carved out a niche as an enclave popular with artists and musicians, with cheap rents (until recently, at least), a relaxed lifestyle and a renowned electronic music scene that drives its unrivalled nightlife. It’s a bohemian place, relatively underdeveloped economically, but it just so happens to also be the political capital of the biggest economy in the European Union. When analysing the post-reunification struggles of die Hauptstadt, British historian James Hawes describes how in the mid-2000s ‘every other European capital city helped to fund its country; only in Germany was it the other way around’. Whether the city really cares is another question altogether – in 2003 mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described his city as ‘poor, but sexy.’ Indeed, an entire tourism marketing campaign used this very slogan.
THE GRAF EFFECT
This precarious financial position is one of the reasons that an incarnation of the Berlin Open hasn’t appeared on the WTA tour since 2008 (when Russia’s Dinara Safina triumphed). Once considered one of the most important clay court warm-up events for Roland Garros, the tournament fell victim to the financial problems faced by the Deutsche Tennis Bund (German Tennis Association) in the 2000s, largely attributed to the significant drop in interest in the sport in Germany following the retirement of Steffi Graf. The rights for the tournament were sold in 2004 to a consortium in Qatar, who continued to run the tournament for a few years before selling the licence back to the WTA in 2008.
On the men’s side, the barren patch has lasted even longer. The ATP Tour last came to Berlin in 1991, also for a clay court event, without even so much as a Challenger Tour event taking place in the city since.
COMING IN FROM THE COLD
This is all about to change. Berlin has transformed rapidly in the past decade and is arguably more ready than ever for a tournament to make the city its long-term home. For better or worse (many of the politically left-leaning city’s residents would argue the latter), Berlin has never been more commercially attractive, remaining incredibly popular with creatives and young people in general, and its ‘cheap and cool’ appeal has naturally also brought interest from big business. Rents and property prices are soaring, commercial projects are popping up all around town, and the city now even has not just one, but two Bundesliga teams for the first time in its history. Tennis administrators have decided that the time is right to join in the fun.
Successful exhibitions were held last summer during the COVID break, including one that took place in a hangar at the disused Tempelhof Airport, giving the court backdrop a real post-apocalyptic feel that Berlin seems to specialise in. Dominic Thiem and Jannik Sinner were among the stars on show, as well as a seemingly ageless Tommy Haas. A Challenger event was reportedly being planned for the same venue this July, although this has not yet been announced in the schedule by the ATP. Either way, the emergence of a genuine top German talent in Alexander Zverev certainly gives the idea of bringing the men’s game here some added weight.
THE WTA MAKES THE FIRST MOVE
Which brings us to the WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, taking place this week (14th-20th June). The big return to Berlin has already endured a difficult start – the inaugural tournament was scheduled for 2020 but became a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
The more hedonistic side of the city won’t be so visible at the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club, located in the city’s more affluent and leafy western outskirts, but the stellar line up of players should ensure some electric beats for the crowd to along nod along to. Aryna Sabalenka (world number 4), Elina Svitolina (no. 6), Bianca Andreescu (no. 7) and Iga Swiatek (no. 9) lead the field, with Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Garbiñe Muguruza also involved. The tournament lost Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka in the wake of events at the French Open, but the difficulties of persuading players to travel to a new tournament have been outweighed by the advantage of being part of a grass court season that offers only limited choice as top stars look to get in shape for Wimbledon.
There is home interest, too, with German number one Angelique Kerber leading the charge. Sadly absent will be Sabine Lisicki, who hails from Berlin itself and has serious grass court pedigree but is sidelined with the latest in a horrendous string of injuries.
WIMBLEDON PREPARATIONS BEGIN
As is always the case with events between the French Open and Wimbledon, it is hard to predict who will come out on top. Even top players need time to adjust to the grass, particularly those who went deep at Roland Garros and will be playing their first grass court event of the year. Regardless, this represents a big opportunity for the WTA. Berlin might be a curious mix of politicians, techno heads, and tech entrepreneurs, but it’s a city of 4 million that is full of youthful energy. On the face of it, it should be a prime candidate for a stop on the tennis merry-go-round. It will be interesting to see how this latest attempt to lay down roots in this most unique city fares.
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