Belinda Bencic Continues Win Streak By Beating Pliskova - UBITENNIS
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Belinda Bencic Continues Win Streak By Beating Pliskova

Belinda Bencic marched on into the semi-final of the BNP Paribas Open with a hard-fought three-set win over Karolina Pliskova.

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Belinda Bencic (@BNPPARIBASOPEN on Twitter)

Belinda Bencic extended her extraordinary win streak to 12 matches with a 6-3 4-6 6-3 victory over Karolina Pliskova in the Indian Wells quarter-final.

 

The Swiss, 22, has now defeated six top-ten players in that time, and has her eyes on a second consecutive title after her triumph in Dubai.

“It feels amazing and I cannot believe that I have beaten Pliskova today,” Bencic said in her on-court interview. “I just try my best – I’m not thinking about the victory or anything else during the match.”

She continued, “I try not to think about who is on the other side of the court. The pressure is not on me against top-ten players. They have the pressure so I can just play.”

Pliskova handed Bencic the early initiative when she made three consecutive forehand errors to hand her two break points in game three. The Swiss player seized the opportunity with a backhand winner following a second serve to 2-1 up.

The next two games could hardly have been more different. After a serene hold from Bencic, Pliskova made two double faults to raise her opponent’s hopes of another break.

Thankfully for the Czech, she recovered her composure just in time and produced two big serves to secure the hold.

After a pep-talk from her coach, Pliskova attacked the Bencic serve in the next game, and it nearly yielded a break when she established a 15-40 advantage.

However, the Swiss seemed determined to stay ahead, and she sent down three excellent serves and an ace to save both break points and close out the game.

Bencic moved 5-3 ahead with another comfortable hold. Then she capitalised on a flurry of errors from Pliskova with a precise forehand winner that sealed another break and with it the set.

Pliskova fights back

Karolina Pliskova (photo by chryslène caillaud, copyright @Sport Vision)

The pattern of the match changed significantly in the second set. Pliskova found her rhythm and started returning much better. This enabled her to earn two breaks and move into a 3-0 lead.

Bencic re-focused and almost got one of the breaks back during a lengthy fourth game, but the World No.5 dug in and saved three break points with her trademark combination of big serves and powerful groundstrokes.

Even though she was now 4-0 down, the Swiss player did not give up on the set. She battled to a hold and then profited from a series of wild errors from Pliskova that gifted her a break to love.

Bencic then held to love and almost won her fourth consecutive game when she created two more opportunities to break in game eight.

Had she got the break, it would probably have heralded the end of the match. But Pliskova produced an ace when she needed it most and then hit a backhand that was too hot for the Swiss to handle.

However, the Czech’s struggles on serve were far from over. When she was serving to level the match, she saved one break point and could only watch and admire as Bencic hit four brilliant groundstrokes to save four set points. Unfortunately for the Swiss, she netted a backhand on the fifth set point.

Bencic steps up in the decider

Belinda Bencic (@BNPPARIBASOPEN on Twitter)

Both players started the decider in confident fashion and the first three games passed without any major incidents.

By contrast, the fourth game was crazy. Bencic played a superb, aggressive point to earn a break point. Pliskova saved it with a ferocious backhand followed by a well-controlled.

Then the game went back and forth to deuce as the Czech had four chances to finish it and the Swiss had three more chances to break before the World No.5 eventually held.

Along the way, there was some terrific tennis for the crowd to enjoy. Pliskova hit a series of stunning winners and Bencic demonstrated just how good she is at dragging an opponent all over the court with her clever varieties and accurate groundstrokes.

The match then settled down as if nothing had happened. Both players held to love before Bencic secured another comfortable hold to lead 4-3.

After missing so many chances to break in previous games, the World No.23 finally made the decisive breakthrough in game eight.

First, she hit a crisp backhand winner down the line. Then Pliskova made three unforced errors in a row to surrender her serve.

Just like in the previous round against Naomi Osaka, Bencic was clinical when serving for the match. She drew a couple of errors from the Czech with smart play, guided a volley into the open court and then clinched the win with an unreturnable serve.

[Also published at womenssporthub.com]

ATP

Australian Open Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas Play for the Men’s Championship

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Novak Djokovic this week in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

A year ago, Novak Djokovic experienced quite an embarrassing debacle.  After the unvaccinated Djokovic was initially granted an exemption and allowed to enter Australia, he was later detained, and eventually deported and prevented from competing at this tournament.  His refusal to get vaccinated continues to prevent Novak from competing in North American tournaments, missing Indian Wells, Miami, Canada, Cincinnati, and the US Open last year. 

 

But at the events Djokovic has been allowed to participate in over the past seven months, he has been nearly unstoppable.  Since the beginning of Wimbledon last June, he is now 37-2, with five titles.  Novak comes into this championship match on a 16-match winning streak, with seven of those victories against top 10 opposition.  With a win on Sunday, Djokovic not only ties Rafael Nadal in their ongoing race for history with 22 Major titles, but he also regains the World No.1 ranking, despite all the tennis he’s missed.

However, standing in his way is a hungry and confident Stefanos Tsitsipas.  This is the Greek’s second Major final, and the second time he’s encountered Djokovic in this round of a Slam.  Two years ago in the championship match of Roland Garros, Tsitsipas secured the first two sets, before losing to Novak in five.  If Stefanos can win one more set on Sunday, he’ll not only win his first Major title, he’ll also become the World No.1 for the first time.

Also on Sunday, the women’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, who have won six Majors as a team, face Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, who are vying for their first Major as a team. 


Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Novak Djokovic (4) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic’s excellence in the latter rounds of the Australian Open is rivaled only by Nadal’s excellence at Roland Garros.  Novak is now 19-0 in the semifinals and finals of this tournament, which is quite staggering.  He’s also won his last 27 matches at this event, and his last 40 in Australia in general, a streak that dates back over five years.  While Novak suffered a hamstring injury a week before this fortnight, he has still advanced to this final rather easily, dropping only one set through six matches.

Tsitsipas has now reached the semifinals or better in four of the last five years at the Australian Open, but this is his first time reaching the final.  He enjoys plenty of Greek support at this event, and appears to have some extra swagger in his step during this fortnight.  Stefanos has dropped three sets to this stage, and has been superb at saving break points.  Through six matches, he has saved 44 of 53 break points faced.

Both men feel fully at home on Rod Laver Arena, and have described it as their favorite court.  But this is their first meeting on RLA.  They’ve met plenty of times on other courts though, in a rivalry that’s been thoroughly dominated by Djokovic.  The Serbian leads 10-2, and has claimed their last nine matches.  That includes four matches that took place in 2022, in which Novak won eight of their nine sets.  They played three times within a six-week period this past fall on indoor hard courts, with their closest and best matchup taking place in the semifinals of Bercy, where Djokovic prevailed in a final-set tiebreak.

Djokovic is undeniably a huge favorite to win his 10th Australian Open.  But that common knowledge takes a lot of pressure off Tsitsipas, who was so close to defeating Novak the last time they met in a Slam final.  Djokovic has been rather unbothered by all competition during this tournament, even with an injured hamstring.  Can Stefanos pull off one of the bigger surprises in recent tennis history?  I expect him to challenge Novak on Sunday, but Tsitsipas’ backhand remains a liability. And with Djokovic determined to avenge what he sees as mistreatment a year ago in Australia, a Novak loss would be truly surprising.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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ATP

Australian Open Daily Preview: Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina Play for the Women’s Championship

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Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

2022 was a trying year for Aryna Sabalenka.  She completely lost her form on her second serve, striking double-digit double faults in many of her matches.  And in her third Major semifinal within a 14-month period, she again lost in heartbreaking fashion, by a score of 6-4 in the third for the third straight time.  Many athletes never recover from such issues and scar tissue.  But in just the first month of 2023, and after working with a biomechanics specialist to fix her serve, a calmer, more confident Sabalenka has achieved her first Major singles final.

 

2022 was a milestone year for Elena Rybakina.  Six months ago, the 23-year-old had only won two WTA titles at smaller events, and reached one Major quarterfinal.  Then she surprised the tennis world by winning Wimbledon this past July.  However, she was granted no ranking points due to the controversial backlash to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes.  And in the ensuing months, Elena was often banished to outer courts at bigger events, including this one, with court assignments unbefitting of a reigning Wimbledon champion.  Rybakina used all of this as motivation, and has achieved her second Major final just six months after her first.

Also on Saturday, the men’s doubles champions will be crowned.  Will an Aussie team triumph for a second year in a row?  Wild cards Rinky Hijikata and Jason Kubler will face Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski, in a first Major final for both of these partnerships. 


Elena Rybakina (22) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is a perfect 10-0 in 2023, and 20-0 in sets.  This is the fourth time out of the last six Majors she has advanced to the semifinals or better, and she already owns two Slam titles in women’s doubles with Elise Mertens.  Regardless of Saturday’s result, Aryna will reach a new career-high of No.2 on Monday.

Rybakina had lost five of her last eight matches heading into this fortnight, but has found her form as the event has progressed.  She has dropped only one set through six matches, to last year’s runner-up Danielle Collins.  Elena will debut inside the top 10 on Monday, as high as No.8 if she wins this final.  And she would be solidly inside the top five with her points from Wimbledon.

Sabalenka leads their head-to-head 3-0, though all three matches have gone three sets.  In fact in all three, Sabalenka won the first and third sets, while Rybakina won the second.  They’ve played four years ago in Wuhan, two years ago in Abu Dhabi, and two years ago at Wimbledon. 

Aryna’s vastly-improved serve and demeanor have been crucial in advancing her to her first Major singles final.  But can she avoid double faulting, and remain calm, in what is the biggest match of her career?

No player’s serve has been more effective during this tournament than Rybakina’s.  As per Tumaini Carayol on Twitter, more than 50% of Elena’s serves have gone unreturned, which results in a lot of easy points.  And no player remains more calm on court than Rybakina, despite the berating comments her coach may share during the match

I expect Elena’s experience winning Wimbledon six months ago to prove extremely valuable on Saturday, and slightly favor Rybakina to win her second Major.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Coach Of Elena Rybakina Dismisses Allegations Of Poor Behavior At Australian Open

Stefano Vukov explains why he believes his actions were appropriate during Rybakina’s semi-final win over Aryna Sabalenka.

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Image via AUS Open twitter

The coach of Elena Rybakina has denied accusations that he was berating his player during her clash with Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open by saying he was just doing his job. 

 

Stefano Vukov was seen multiple times during Rybakina’s semi-final match being highly animated and making a series of critical gestures towards his player when she produced mistakes. The display prompted criticism on social media with former player Laura Robson saying on Eurosport ‘I don’t know how she (Rybakina) copes. He seems to be so negative on the side.”

Croatian-born Vukov has been working with the reigning Wimbledon champion since 2019 and previously coached Anhelina Kalinina. He was briefly a player on the Futures and Challenger Tour before going to America to study. Growing up his family left Croatia when he was a child due to the war and he spent roughly 15 years living in Italy.

“It’s easy to just take clips and then make something controversial. This is part of our sport, it’s normal,” Vukov told Fox Sports Australia when quizzed about his behaviour. 
“There’s 10,000 people out there, to get the attention of the player is definitely not easy and people don’t understand that. I have to scream out something if she’s off track.
“People can interpret that how they want but at the end of the day we’re just doing our job. Coaching is now allowed and she’s using it in the best possible way.”

This year is the first time that coaching is allowed during matches at the Australian Open but it is only allowed if players and coaches are on the same side of the court and there is no hindrance towards their opponent.  

Continuing to hit back at the criticism, Rybakina’s mentor says during the match there are key moments where he needs to remind her of certain tactics. Dismissing suggestions from some that his approach is heavy-handed in any way. 

“I think with all the emotions, sometimes the player doesn’t understand which situation of the match they are, which is absolutely normal,” he said. 
“You know, you’re flowing, you’re into a rhythm, which has happened also yesterday, for example, against Azarenka. A set, 3-1 up, two breakpoints. She stopped playing, Elena, for a couple of games, for example, instead of going for the point a little bit more.
“There are moments we try to remind her, Hey, this is the moment to push. This is the moment to defend.
“It’s normal. There are moments of the match the player doesn’t remember, for example, or in a pressure point, which side to defend more, where to serve more.
“We are there to remind them. So obviously I think that coaching is very important. I think that the player, if the player wants to listen, obviously, they should use it as much as possible, because there is some matches that a few points make the difference. Look at the beginning of yesterday. 3-2 down, two bad choices. That’s it. That’s it. She could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up.
“I don’t know, something like this. Not to be negative, but it’s just our job, right? That’s what we are there for.”

In a previous interview with Tennis Majors last year, Vukov said he and Rybakina clicked together due to ‘his energy against her calmness.’ He also described the world No.25 as  ‘a hardworking perfectionist, which sometimes works against her because sometimes she gets frustrated when things are not perfect.’

Rybakina will play Aryna Sabalenka in the Australian Open final on Saturday. As a result of her run in Melbourne, she will crack the top 10 next week for the first time regardless of how she performs in the final. 

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