Sloane Stephens fights back to beat Azarenka and reach Miami final - UBITENNIS
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Sloane Stephens fights back to beat Azarenka and reach Miami final

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Sloane Stephens beat Victoria Azarenka 3-6 6-2 6-1 in a bizarre match to reach the final of the Miami Open for the first time.

The result also means the American has now won 23 of the 28 matches she has played in North America since returning from injury last June.

Victory for Stephens looked an unlikely outcome after she went 3-0 down due to a sluggish start, lost the opening set 6-3 and then slipped 2-0 behind at the beginning of the second set.

However, the 2017 US Open champion managed to motivate herself to raise her game and she went on an extraordinary run as she won 10 of the last 11 games to earn a place in the final.

After Azarenka dictated the opening exchanges and moved into a 3-0 lead, Stephens got herself warmed up and into the match by levelling the score.

The Belarussian responded by increasing her aggression and hitting deeper. And her approach worked as she again strung three consecutive games together to take the first set 6-3.

A Remarkable Turnaround for Stephens

Azarenka extended her run of successive games to five by racing into a 2-0 lead in the second set. But it was a false dawn for the two-time Australian Open champion as Stephens suddenly roared into life.

When Azarenka made a couple of double faults to slip down 0-30, Stephens pounced on the opportunity and broke to love. She then withstood considerable pressure from the Belarussian to hold and level the score.

Game five was pivotal. Azarenka made a couple of errors to gift Stephens three break points, and then saved all three with a series of trademark groundstrokes.

But the American seemed determined to break and she saved two game points before earning her fourth break point. She took it by hitting a fierce forehand that Azarenka was only able to deflect wide of court.

The Belarussian was clearly shaken by the turn-around and she was outplayed by Stephens for the rest of the set as the American stormed through the remaining three games to win it 6-2.

Stephens immediately went up a break in the decider against an increasingly frustrated Azarenka by producing a stunning forehand winner to clinch a closely-fought opening game.

By this point, the Belarussian seemed preoccupied with certain individuals making too much noise in the crowd and the unforced errors were beginning to mount up.

After a comfortable hold, the American broke down Azarenka’s resistance again to earn a double break and suddenly the final was within reach.

Unfortunately, the Belarussian seemed to be suffering with some kind of fitness issue during the latter part of the final set and, although she managed to earn one hold, it became something of a procession as Stephens wrapped up the set 6-1.

“We played some really good points”

“I think she came out playing really well, and I knew I was going to have to fight regardless of what happened last week,” said Stephens in her press conference.

She continued, “I wasn’t playing terribly. I had a lot of errors, but I didn’t feel like I was just not in the match. So I knew if I stayed with it I would be able to get my opportunities, and I did.”

Stephens was asked about her exuberant reaction to winning the match. She said, “That’s obviously a good win for me. It’s someone I have lost to three times prior to last week. So I had to play some of my best tennis today.”

“I thought it was a really great match. Some of you might not agree, but I thought that we played some really good points. Yeah, I’m excited. I’m happy to be in the final. I think anyone would be. Hopefully I take that good tennis into Saturday’s final.”

Stephens was also asked about the incredible run of qualifier Danielle Collins, who she might face in an all-American final. She said, “I think it’s awesome. The last time I played her was in a 14s designated in Florida. I think it’s really awesome to see girls who go to college and then are able to play on tour.”

“I think that’s really cool. Education is really important. I think she said at Indian Wells she was the first person in her family to graduate. I respect that and I think it’s really awesome. For her, growing up, playing junior tennis with her, that’s really incredible and I think she’s a great story. I’m super happy for her.”

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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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