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Four WTA Players Enjoy Breakthrough Weeks In Rome

Victoria Azarenka, Johanna Konta, Maria Sakkari and Kristina Mladenovic have made significant strides at the Italian Open.

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This week in Rome, four WTA players have made significant breakthroughs which could affect the rest of the year.

 

Two of them – Victoria Azarenka and Johanna Konta – have experienced life either near to or at the top of the rankings, while the other two – Maria Sakkari and Kristina Mladenovic – are less familiar with such lofty heights.

In the case of Azarenka, who is now 29, it had seemed possible that she would never again beat top players on a consistent basis.

However, the Belarussian’s performances at the Italian Open suggest that she can still beat the best. She got the better of World No.6 Elina Svitolina in an excellent three-set encounter. She was leading former World No.1 Garbine Muguruza 6-4 3-1 when the Spaniard was forced to retire with a thigh injury. And she provided a stern challenge for World No.7 Karolina Pliskova during a three-set defeat in the quarter-final.

“I feel like I keep improving from week to week,” Azarenka said in her press conference after beating Muguruza. “I’m able to check off some of those goals I set for myself.”

She continued, “Obviously, the match with Elina was very dramatic. It was really good quality. I’m really happy that I learned from last week in Madrid how to turn the things around and take more into my own hands.”

Konta rediscovers her best form

Johanna Konta (@InteBNLdItalia on Twitter)

Konta is a different conundrum because it is difficult to be certain what the limits of her ability are. Was her run to the Wimbledon semi-final in 2017 an over-achievement, or is it a feat she could repeat?

Whatever the answer is to that question, the Brit has been undoubtedly impressive in recent weeks. She made a great start to the clay swing by reaching her first clay-court semi-final at WTA level in Rabat.

Konta then thrashed Alison Riske 6-4 6-1 in Madrid and pushed Simona Halep hard in the first set of their second-round meeting.

In Rome, the Brit demolished Riske by the same score for the second time in nine days and beat Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams in the same day to advance to the last eight.

Konta then dealt superbly with the unique challenges posed by Marketa Vondrousova as she beat the Czech 6-3 3-6 6-1 to advance to her biggest semi-final since Wimbledon 2017.

Konta shows she can thrive on clay

However, while the Brit’s form on clay may seem unusual to many observers, it has not come as a surprise to the World No.42, who will move up at least 11 places when the rankings are updated.

“I’ve always trusted my ability on the clay,” Konta said in her press conference after her win over Venus. “I think my weaker results on it compared to the other surfaces over the last couple years was mainly only an issue in the press room.”

She continued, “When I was a junior, and even as a young professional on the tour, I won most of my titles on the clay. I’m just pleased that (this year) I’ve been able to adapt and adjust. I feel I can be a bit more efficient on the surface, which has helped against the quality of opponents I’m coming up against.”

Konta’s current form bodes well for her chances of a good showing at the French Open. And, if she can carry it over into the grass season, perhaps another deep run at Wimbledon will also be on the cards.

Sakkari hits new heights on the WTA tour

Maria Sakkari (@InteBNLdItalia on Twitter)

Maria Sakkari enjoyed an even better week than the Brit in Rabat. She beat Konta in the final to claim her first ever WTA title.

And the Greek, 23, has used that confidence to thrive in Rome. She came through two rounds of qualifying and then beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Anett Kontaveit to set up a quarter-final against Petra Kvitova.

Most in the tennis world will have expected her run to end there. But Sakkari put the Czech under all sorts of pressure and she was leading 4-0 in the decider when Kvitova was forced to retire with a calf injury.

That win set up a quarter-final meeting with Kristina Mladenovic. She beat the Frenchwoman 5-7 6-3 6-0 to progress to only her second Premier 5 semi-final and move to a career-high ranking of 28.

Mladenovic returns to prominence

It has also been a big week for Mladenovic. She reached a career-high ranking of 10 in 2017 after the best six months of her career but has struggled ever since.

Now it looks like the Frenchwoman’s best tennis may be returning. Since she started working with Sascha Bajin, who is famous for his time with Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka, her results have improved considerably.

First, she made it through qualifying in Madrid and beat Barbora Strycova in the first round. Then she came to Rome, qualified again, and recorded brilliant wins over Caroline Garcia, Belinda Bencic and Ashleigh Barty.

“I’m definitely satisfied (with my form),” Mladenovic said in her press conference after her win over Barty. “Tennis is funny – it will forever be ups and downs. When I was losing matches, I wondered what was missing. I didn’t feel like I was playing so bad, but it just didn’t click.”

She continued, “If you work hard, eventually success comes. Clay helps me. I feel like I have more time to produce my game.”

The Frenchwoman also credited her new coach. She said, “I’m loving what I’m working on with Sascha. He helps me a lot because he likes to spend hours and hours on court with me. We have the same vision of my tennis and he has brought new exercises to (help me achieve) this same vision and goal. That’s helped with my consistency and I think it’s making the difference right now.”

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: A Busy Day of Second Round Action on Wednesday

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A look at Court Philippe Chatrier (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

Wednesday’s schedule is overflowing with big names and compelling matchups.  Four of the top six men’s seeds will play their second round matches, and all face intriguing opposition.  Defending champion Novak Djokovic plays Alex Molcan, who is coached by Novak’s longtime coach, Marian Vajda.  13-time champ Rafael Nadal faces France’s Corentin Moutet, who took out 2015 champ Stan Wawrinka in the first round.  Spain’s new rising star, Carlos Alcaraz, takes on fellow Spaniard and accomplished clay courter Albert Ramos-Vinolas.  And third-seeded Sascha Zverev goes against Sebastian Baez, who won a clay court title last month in Estoril.

 

However, the day’s most competitive ATP matches may not involve those top names.  Second round clashes Sebastian Korda and Richard Gasquet, as well as between Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric, could prove to be two the day’s best men’s singles contests.

Women’s second round action on Wednesday features a blockbuster matchup, as 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu meets Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic.  In a battle of two Major semifinalists from 2021, Maria Sakkari takes on Karolina Muchova.  And five other Major singles champions will take the court (Kerber, Kvitova, Azarenka, Stephens, Raducanu).

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s five most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Wednesday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Sebastian Baez – Second on Court Philippe Chatrier

This is a dangerous draw for Zverev, as Baez is one the 2022’s fastest-rising players.  The 21-year-old from Argentina started the year ranked 99th, but is now 36th, having accumulated 28 match wins at all levels, and claiming a clay court title last month in Estoril.  He was also a finalist earlier this year on clay in Santiago.  These players met just two weeks ago in Rome, with Zverev prevailing in two tight sets.   I expect another tight affair on Wednesday, especially since Sascha has a history of getting involved in five-setters at Roland Garros.  In the last four years here, he’s played eight of them.  However, it’s worth noting his record in those matches is 7-1.  Zverev’s fire power should enable him to get past the up-and-coming Argentine.


Maria Sakkari (4) vs. Karolina Muchova – Second on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Their only previous encounter was a doozy.  Last year on clay in Madrid, Muchova dominated the first set 6-0, Sakkari took the second in an extended tiebreak, but Karolina eventually prevailed 7-5 in the third.  That’s one of many painful losses Maria suffered last season, with the most painful coming in the semifinals of this event a year ago, when she went down in defeat despite holding a match point over eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.  Sakkari has persevered extremely well, and started off 2022 16-4, though she’s just 4-3 on clay this season.  However, Muchova is only 6-2 the entire year, as an abdominal injury kept her off the court.  The more in-form Sakkari should be favored to avenge her loss to Muchova from a year ago.


Belinda Bencic (14) vs. Bianca Andreescu – Third on Court Philippe Chatrier

This is a rematch from the semifinals of the 2019 US Open semifinals, when Andreescu was victorious after two extremely close sets on her way to her maiden Major title.  That semifinal remains Belinda’s best performance at a Slam.  And the French Open has easily been her worst Major, where she is 6-5 lifetime, and never advanced beyond the third round.  But Bencic is having a strong clay court season, with a 10-2 record, and a title in Charleston.  Andreescu has missed a lot of time over the last few years, including the first three months of 2022.  Yet she’s a decent 7-3 on the year, with her only three losses coming to top 15 players.  And on a big stage such as Court Philippe Chatrier, Andreescu usually brings her best tennis.  I give the Canadian the slight edge to grit out the upset over Bencic after a significant battle.


Sebastian Korda (27) vs. Richard Gasquet – Fourth on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Both players completed their first round matches on Tuesday due to rain, leaving them no day of rest, though they both won in straights sets and should feel rather fresh.  Korda eliminated Australia’s John Millman, while Gasquet dismissed South Africa’s Lloyd Harris.  It was this event two years ago where Sebi made his Major breakthrough, reaching the fourth round in just his second main draw appearance at a Slam.  The 21-year-old American is the only player to earn a victory over Carlos Alcaraz this season on clay, and also achieved a clay court semifinal in Estoril.  Gasquet spent much of this month playing Challenger events, though he did reach a tour-level semi of his own just last week in Geneva.  Clay is not Richard’s strongest surface, but he was a quarterfinalist here in 2016.  He’ll certainly be motivated by the inspiring efforts of his fellow countrymen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles from Tuesday.  And with this match scheduled late in the day, he’ll benefit from a rowdy French crowd behind him.  However, Korda’s more reliable groundstrokes should allow him to get past the Frenchman, with an Alcaraz rematch perhaps awaiting him in the third round.


Grigor Dimitrov (18) vs. Borna Coric – Fourth on Court 14

Dimitrov is a meek 13-11 lifetime at Roland Garros, but he is a solid 9-4 on clay this season, and was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo.  Coric is trying to rediscover his form after missing a full year of action due to shoulder surgery.  He’s just 2-6 at all levels since returning, and was on a five-match losing streak coming into this event before earning a first-round win over Carlos Taberner.  Borna has a clay court title on his resume, and has previously fought his way to victories at Majors in matches he had no business winning.  The 2020 US Open comes to mind, when Coric came back from seemingly sure defeat against Stefanos Tsitsipas, saving six match points along the way.  I would not be surprised if he pushes Dimitrov on Wednesday.  Yet Grigor seemed perfectly comfortable in his opening round, dropping only three games, and is the favorite in this match as well.


Other Notable Matches on Wednesday:

Angelique Kerber (21) vs. Elisa Jacquemot (WC) – Kerber survived the first round of this event for only the second time in seven years, and did so in thrilling fashion.  Angie defeated Magdalena Frech in an over three-hour affair, and was cheered on vociferously by the Parisian crowd.  On Wednesday, she plays France’s Jacquemot, a 19-year-old who earned her first Major win on Monday.

Amanda Anisimova (27) vs. Donna Vekic (Q) – Anisimova took out Naomi Osaka in the opening round.  Vekic is a former top 20 player who has battled injury in recent years.  Two years ago on clay in Rome, Amanda overcame Donna in two tiebreak sets.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Alex Molcan – Djokovic’s last loss in the second round of a Major was at the 2017 Australian Open, at the hands of Denis Istomin.  Molcan is a 24-year-old from Slovakia who reached finals at two 250-level clay events this season.  Last year on clay in Belgrade, Novak defeated Alex in straights.

Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Albert Ramos-Vinolas – Alcaraz is now 29-3 on the year, and is currently on an 11-match win streak.  Ramos-Vinolas was a quarterfinalist here in 2016, and has won four clay court titles in his career, including this February in Cordoba.  Alcaraz has claimed both of their previous meetings.

Rafael Nadal (5) vs. Corentin Moutet (WC) – Despite questions regarding the status of his chronically-injured foot, Nadal prevailed easily on Monday, dropping only six games.  Moutet beat Stan Wawrinka in four sets the same day. 


Wednesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Planning Key For Daniil Medvedev’s Comeback From Hernia Surgery

Daniil Medvedev cruised past Facundo Bagnis in his opening round at Roland Garros.

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Daniil Medvedev (@atptour - Twitter)

Daniil Medvedev has spoke about preparation and planning after his first win since hernia surgery.

 

The second seed was victorious in his opening round at Roland Garros after beating Argentinian Facundo Bagnis 6-2 6-2 6-2.

Medvedev usually hates the clay court season but the Russian, who reached the quarter-finals last year, cruised to victory with the loss of just six games.

This is only Medvedev’s second tournament since hernia surgery which took place after the Miami Open.

Speaking to the press after his win Medvedev said that planning was the key to his comeback, “The thing is that, yeah, for sure when I made surgery, I didn’t know — I thought I’m not going to come back on clay. I thought I’m going to come back for grass,” the Russian admitted.

“But straightaway we made a good plan with my team, with my doctor team and physio team, to try to get me back on track as fast as possible. Because also what is tough is there is no sign of when you can actually start playing tennis. It’s just kind of you start, and if you feel pain, you should stop straightaway.

“So I started after four weeks, which usually it can take up to six weeks, I heard, average. I never had pain, so we are going step by step slowly, first day 30 minutes and then 45. Same, yeah, I went to Geneva to see how my body is. I felt great physically. I managed to put really strong practice hours here before Roland Garros. I feel 100% ready physically, so thanks to my team.”

Medvedev will look to build momentum as he prepares to miss Wimbledon due to Russian and Belarusian athletes being banned.

Now for the world number two the focus is on Roland Garros and on clay and after his match he broke down why he isn’t as effective on clay than he is on hard courts, “I would love to think that it’s not mental, because every time I start playing on clay every year, because you have to, I’m like, Come on, you know, just be better. This year is going to be different, is going to be, for you, the clay, and then I feel like I need a lot of time to adapt,” Medvedev explained.

“It’s about the movement, and I think my strokes are given like in the air because the balls are much heavier, they have dirt on them, so a lot of my balls, not at Roland Garros but other courts, for example, it was the case in Geneva, I feel like I’m doing a good job but it just goes in the net.

“When you don’t know what you can improve, that’s where it’s tough because you’re, like, What do I do next shot? Yeah, it’s not the case here, so I’m happy about it. So I know I’m capable of doing some good things. But, yeah, I need to be 100% focused and ready for what clay has to give to me. Right now I feel ready.”

Medvedev will look to continue his confidence on Thursday when he takes on Laslo Djere in his second round match.

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Denis Shapovalov Left ‘Frustrated’ After Early Roland Garros Exit

Denis Shapovalov has a lot thinking to do after his round one exit to Holger Rune in Paris.

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Denis Shapovalov (@andertennis - Twitter)

Denis Shapovalov left feeling frustrated after he lost 6-1 6-3 7-6(4) to Holger Rune in the first round of Roland Garros.

 

The Canadian headed into the opening round with confidence after reaching the last eight in Rome.

However Shapovalov hit 53 unforced errors in an underwhelming performance as he went to an in-form Holger Rune.

Rune, who won Munich and reached the semi-finals in Lyon, played electric tennis as he moves into the second round to play Henri Laaksonen or Pedro Martinez.

As for Shapovalov he was left frustrated and admitted improvement is needed ahead of the grass court season, “For sure I wasn’t able to bring out my best performance,” Shapovalov said in his post match press conference.

“It’s definitely frustrating. It just shows I have a lot to work on. And just
excited to get back to work. Never think I’m done learning and improving.
So, yeah, it’s difficult moment, but I just keep working. I didn’t really
show up today, so it’s a little bit difficult.

“Holger is playing some great tennis, won his first title, semis last week, I believe, pushing some top guys. So yeah, for sure not taking anything away from him, obviously he’s playing great tennis.

“But I think against most players today I wouldn’t come out the winner. So, yeah, a little bit frustrating on my side and just feel like I need to improve some things. Be sure that I’m ready for the slams.”

It’s another disappointing grand slam performance from Shapovalov who recognises he must do better in the future in order to break into the world’s top 10.

Speaking of the future the grass court season is up next where Shapovalov reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

However due to the ATP’s decision to remove ranking points as a result of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players at Wimbledon, whatever happens at SW19 Shapovalov will lose a hefty amount of points.

That is a decision that the Canadian doesn’t necessarily agree with, “I haven’t decided anything yet. Been trying to focus on this tournament,” Shapovalov admitted.

“I think first of all, if you have a pro competition, that everybody should be competing. I completely understand the politics and the situation they’re in. But again, if you have a tennis tournament that’s supposed to have the best athletes in the world, it shouldn’t matter where you’re from, this and that, you know? So everybody should be competing.

“I also don’t agree with the ATP to take out all the points. The most guys it’s affecting are the guys in the top rankings. Obviously Novak, me, Hubi, Berrettini, who is not playing here, we’re going to drop a lot. I think they could have gone with it a different way, maybe keep 50 percent like they have in the past or some kind of fairness. But even a guy like Fucsovics is going to drop out of the top 100, you know.

“So it’s difficult for the players when you don’t have a chance to defend and especially on a surface like grass where it’s already so short and the players that play well on that surface they don’t have that many opportunities tom make points, so you take a huge chunk of it out, it’s super difficult for players.”

It’s a dilemma many players will face heading into Wimbledon over the next few weeks.

As for Shapovalov his next tournament will be in Stuttgart which starts on the 6th of June.

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