A determined and dangerous looking Sloane Stephens brushed aside two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in the third round of the US Open on Friday. The third seed produced a fine performance to down Azarenka 6-3, 6-4 on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The defending champion began the match in fantastic fashion as she was moving terrifically on the court, hitting her shots beautifully on the run, and using the angles extremely well. On the other hand Azarenka was really struggling with her first serve and it cost her dearly early on in the first set as she lost her serve in the third game.
Stephens was generating so much power on her shots and directing them towards Azarenka, who was allowing herself to be dragged all over the place. Errors on the Azarenka forehand continued to pile and Stephens broke to love to take the first set. It was really solid tennis from the American.
Stephens picked up where she left off, and Azarenka was looking more and more frustrated at her inability to play her aggressive brand of tennis, which she is known for. Stephens was making mistakes, but they all still seemed to be staying in the court, whereas Azarenka’s errors were giving away points and the vital break in the 4th game of the second set. However, Stephens gave the break right back, with a double-fault.
Azarenka then found her rhythm and surged ahead for the first time with a break of serve. But, her happiness didn’t last long as Stephens broke back again after a brief rain break, which forced the roof to be closed. It was undoubtedly tremendous tennis from Stephens eventually, breaking the Azarenka serve once more to finish off the match. The rallying was simply exceptional during the encounter.
In her on-court interview, Stephens credited her fighting spirit for the win. She said: “I just battled as hard as I could, ran down every ball. I was playing a former grand slam champion, she raised her level and sometimes things got tight. I just had to stay in it and I did that well. I fought for every point. I’ve never played under this roof so it was super cool. The man upstairs was definitely looking after me. I was thankful for the break.”
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Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth
As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day
We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.
And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.
These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.
Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.
So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.
Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.
The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.
Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.
Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.
But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless, Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.
The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.
The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.
But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.
Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.
Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.
Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.
And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.
Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).
Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.
Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
Indian Wells Daily Preview: 2019 Finalists Andreescu and Kerber Face Stiff Competition
Monday hosts some stellar third round matchups in both the men’s and women’s singles draws. 10 of the days’ 16 singles matches feature seeded players colliding. They include 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, three-time Major champ Angelique Kerber, and newly-crowned US Open champ Daniil Medvedev.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Monday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.
Angelique Kerber (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina (20) – 11:00am on Stadium 2
It’s the 2018 runner-up against the 2019 runner-up. Both players submitted subpar results thereafter, but have bounced back strongly in 2021. Kasatkina started the year ranked outside the top 70, yet is now inside the top 30 after racking up 36 wins and reaching four finals. Kerber rediscovered her mojo on the grass. Since her title run in Bad Homburg, she’s 18-4. These two players have split eight previous encounters, though Kasatkina leads 4-2 on hard courts. Most recently they met two years ago in Tororto, where Daria prevailed 6-4 in the third. Their clash of styles on these slow courts should provide some dynamic, compelling rallies. But based on Kerber’s current level of confidence, I give her the slight edge.
Bianca Andreescu (16) vs. Anett Kontaveit (18) – Second on Stadium 2
Andreescu may be the defending champion and higher seed, but as of late, Kontaveit has been the better player. She recently hired Dmitry Tursunov as her coach, and she’s been on fire. Since late-August, Anett is 14-1, with two titles. By contrast, Andreescu is only 6-8 since Roland Garros, with the US Open the only event where she has won back-to-back matches. However, Kontaveit did withdraw from a WTA event in Chicago two weeks ago with a thigh injury, so she’s not been 100% after playing so much tennis in such a short span. Bianca rarely goes down without a dogged fight, especially at big events on hard courts, but she may be the underdog on this day. And she’s never beaten Kontaveit, who is 2-0 against Andreescu, including a straight-set victory earlier this year on the grass of Eastbourne.
Other Notable Matches on Monday:
Diego Schwartzman (11) vs. Dan Evans (18) – Schwartzman saved match points on Saturday against American Maxime Cressy, while Evans survived a grueling three-setter against Kei Nishikori. Two months ago in Cincinnati, Diego defeated Dan in three.
Casper Ruud (8) vs. Lloyd Harris (26) – Ruud leads the ATP with five titles this season, winning his first hard court event just eight days ago in San Diego by defeating three top 30 players. Harris is on the verge of breaking into the top 30 himself, coming off his Major quarterfinal debut in New York.
Reilly Opelka (16) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (23) – This summer in Canada, Opelka took out Dimitrov in straight sets, though these slower courts will mitigate some of his Servebot prowess.
Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek – These teams played what was perhaps the most exciting doubles match of the year at Roland Garros, when Mattek-Sands and Swiatek saved seven match points to eventually prevail after three hours and 11 minutes.
Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Danielle Collins (22) – These are two of the WTA’s strongest performers in recent months. Last October at the French Open, Collins upset Jabeur 6-4 in the third.
Denis Shapovalov (9) vs. Aslan Karatsev (19) – Since advancing to his first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, Shapovalov is a meek 4-6. Karatsev achieved the same feat back in February, but is now 8-11 since mid-May.
Coco Gauff (15) vs. Paula Badosa (21) – This could be one of the best matches of the day, between two of the WTA’s fastest-rising performers. Gauff is just a few wins away from putting herself into qualifying position for the WTA Finals.
Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Frances Tiafoe – Tiafoe leads their head-to-head 2-1, though Hurkacz claimed their latest clash, two years ago in Winston-Salem.
Roberto Bautista Agut (15) vs. Cameron Norrie (21) – Norrie has accumulated 42 wins on the year, reaching five finals. Bautista Agut has underperformed this season, and hasn’t achieved a final since March.
Daniil Medvedev (1) vs. Filip Krajinovic (27) – Medvedev is looking for his 50th win of 2021, while Krajinovic arrived at Indian Wells with a record of 17-17. However, he did defeat Daniil at the last staging of this event two years ago.
Barbora Krejcikova (3) vs. Amanda Anisimova – Krejcikova is one of many players who have shared how exhausted they’ve felt after such a busy season, though it’s been an incredibly successful one for her. Anisimova dropped only seven games in four sets played last week.
Monday’s full Order of Play is here.
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