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Elena Rybakina Is Really Special

Let’s take a look at the most improved player of the 2020 season, who has reached the final in four tournaments out of the five she’s competed in.

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2019, the year of big choices

Last season was the turning point of Rybakina’s career so far. As she concluded her studies (she went to a regular school, with no attendance leeway for an athlete), she found herself at a crossroads. Her tennis results were good, but not enough to turn in a net profit, so her father advised her to move to the USA to play college tennis. World N.191 at 19: she was the ideal student-athlete candidate, and as a matter of fact received over 15 scholarship offers.

 

And yet Elena wasn’t sold on the idea, as she wanted to keep playing professionally in Europe, and that drove her to two essential decisions. The first one was technical in nature: in February 2019 she left the Spartak Moscow tennis club and hired a coach who would work solely with her, the Croat Stefano Vukov – because of this partnership, she moved her headquarters to Bratislava, at Dominika Cibulkova’s new Academy.

The second big decision was the citizenship swap, as she accepted an offer of financial support from the Kazakh federation under the condition of sailing under their flag. The switch happened on the day of her twentieth birthday, in June – she used to be a Russian teenager, she was now a 20-year-old Kazakh.

It’s hardly news that in the last few years the Russian federation hasn’t been swimming in a pool of gold, especially in comparison to the income the Kazakhs have at their disposal, but it’s still pretty hard to guess whether in Moscow there was a belief in Rybakina’s potential, or whether letting her go was considered not such an irreparable loss. The only hardened fact is that Elena represents Kazakhstan now, and this looks like one of the most far-sighted moves in “tennis transfer market” that the Astana federation has ever made.

At the same time as these decisions were being made, her climb to the top of the game’s Olympus continued. Once again, Rybakina’s ascent wasn’t built upon extraordinary feats, but rather on a steady growth: 78 matches played, 57 wins, 21 losses, 6 finals reached (4 at the ITF level), and among these, her first WTA crown, at the International event in Bucharest, where she didn’t drop a set the whole week, profiting from a draw in which most renowned foes beat themselves – the only Top 100 opponent she had to face was N.54, Viktoria Kuzmova.

Let’s say a couple more things about opponents’ ranks. In 2019, she won just two matches against Top 50 competition, one in Wuhan against Halep (she retired down 5-4 in the opening set), and one in Istanbul against Siniakova, 41st at the time. To sum it up, there are no otherworldly wins, but at the same time, if you start from the 191st spot you don’t get many chances to spare with the best.

The fact remains that her baby-step approach translates to piles of useful points, and a final ranking of N.38 in 2019 – a progression of 153 spots. Her status has changed completely, in a few months she’s gone from having to qualify for WTA Internationals to brushing a seed in the Slams. And at the end of last year, her name started to appear more and more in the final stages of tournaments: she reached a final in Nanchang (losing to Peterson), the semis in Luxembourg, and the quarter finals in Linz and Wuhan.

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Serena Williams sets up clash against her sister Venus

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Former world number 1 and 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams rallied from one set down to beat her compatriot Bernarda Pera 4-6 6-4 6-1 to reach the second round at the inaugual edition of the Top Seed Open in Lexington (Kentucky). 

 

Williams was playing her first match since the Fed Cyp tie where she helped lead the United States to a Fed Cup win over Latvia. 

Croatian-born player Pera broke into the top 100 for the first time in 2018, when she reached the third round at the Australian Open and scored her first win over a top 10 when she beat Joanna Konta. She reached three semifinals in Prague, Lausanne and Juurmala, where she beat former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round.

In the opening set Pera earned a break in the fifth game and saved two break points on her serve. Pera converted her first set ooprtunity with a forehand winner. 

Williams rallied from 0-40 down at the start of the second set and opened up a 3-1 lead with a break before Pera broke back to draw level to 3-3. When she was down 0-40 at 4-4 Williams saved four break points that would have helped Pera serve for the match. 

Williams earned two set points on Pera’s serve and converted her second chance with a forehand. Williams broke serve at the start of the third set to take a 3-1 lead and fended off two break points in the next game. Williams rallied from 0-40 down by winning the final nine points to claim the win. 

“It was a really calm atmosphere, really chill. I can’t say I disliked it. It was different. I have been through so many things in my career. I think I won today because I was calm for once, so that was really helpful”, said Serena Williams after the match. 

Serena set up a clash against her sister Venus, who beat Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-2. Serena holds a 18-12 head-to-head lead over Venus. 

Both players held serve in the first four games. She hit an ace to hold serve for 3-2 before earning three break points. The US player converted her first chance to take a 4-2 lead after a double fault from Azarenka. Williams served for the set at 5-3. Azarenka earned a chance to get back on serve as Williams netted a forehand error at 30-30. Williams saved it and earned a set point. 

Azarenka made a double fault in the first game of the second set to face a break point. Williams got a double break to open up a 3-0 lead. Azarenka got her first game at 4-1. Williams pulled away to 5-1 with her solid serve. Azarenka held serve for 2-5. In the next game Williams earned her first match point and sealed the win with a lob winner. 

 

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Simona Halep makes a winning start to her Prague Open campaign

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Number 1 seed and last year’s Wimbledon champion Simona Halep edged past Polona Hercog 6-1 1-6 7-6 (7-3) in two and a half hours in the opening round of the Prague Open on her seventh match point after 2 hours and 31 minutes. Halep played her first match since claiming her 20th title in Dubai. 

 

Halep wasted six match points before claiming the win in the tie-break of the third set to secure his spot in the Round of 16. Halep won four points more than Hercog and saved five of the 11 break points he faced. 

Both players traded breaks in the second and third games of the opening set. Halep earned two consecutive breaks in the fourth and sixth games to win the first set 6-1, as Hercog made 12 unforced errors to only two winners. 

Hercog came back from a break down early in the second set to get three consecutive breaks and won the second set 6-1. 

Both players traded breaks in the fourth and fifth games of the decider. Halep earned another break to open up a 5-3 lead. Hercog broke back in the ninth game and saved six match points in the 10th and 12th games to set up a decisive tie-break. Halep claimed the tie-break 7-3. 

Before the five-month break Halep lost to Garbine Muguruza in the semifinal of the Australian Open and won the Dubai final. 

Last week’s Palermo semifinalist Camila Giorgi came back from one set down to beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk 4-6 6-2 7-6 (7-4) after 2 hours and 14 minutes. Giorgi converted six of her eight break points. 

Kostyuk earned the first break in the fourth game. Giorgi broke straight back in the fifth game. Both players traded breaks in the sixth and seventh games. Giorgi saved a break point in the eighth game to draw level to 4-4. Kostyuk broke for the third time in the 10th game to win the first set 6-4 after 44 minutes. 

Giorgi broke twice in a row to race out to a 4-0 lead, Kostyuk pulled one break back in the sixth game for 2-4, but Giorgi broke again in the seventh game to win the second set 6-2 in 31 minutes. 

Kostyuk broke serve in the third game of the decider to open up a 3-0 lead. Giorgi broke back to draw level to 3-3. In the eighth game the Italian star fended off another break. The set came down to the tie-break. Giorgi opened up a 4-2 lead. Both players traded mini-breaks. Giorgi earned two match points and converted her first chance to win the tie-break 7-4. 

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Petra Martic advances to the second round at the Prague Open

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Number 2 seed and Roland Garros quarter finalist Petra Martic edged past world number 101 Varvara Gracheva 7-6 (7-2) 6-3 after 1 hour and 50 minutes to advance to the second round at the Prague Open.

 

Martic earned the first break in the third game to take a 2-1 lead. Gracheva broke back at love to draw level to 5-5, as Martic was serving for the first set. Martic hit two dropshots to force a tie-break. The Croatian player won the tie-break 7-2, as Gacheva made five unforrced errors out of nine points. 

Martic needed a medical time-out between sets, but she converted her third break point at deuce to race out to a 3-0 lead with a series of dropshots and smashes. The world number 15 wasted three game points for a 4-1 lead. Gracheva broke back in the fifth game after four deuces. Martic brought up another break point with a drop-shot and converted his chance to take a 4-2 lead as Gracheva sent a forehand long. 

Martic dropped two more points on her serve and converted her first match point with a kick serve and a forehand.

“It was not an eay match, especially in the first set. Unfortunately I could not serve it out, but I am happy I brought my level up in the tie-break where it mattered. It’s definitely not ideal. I have some aches here and there, the body is still adjusting to matches and playing one after another, but I think it’s normal and I hope I can maintain it to last this tournament”, said Martic. 

Elise Mertens battled past Jasmine Paolini 7-5 4-6 6-3 after two hours and 41 minutes. In the first set Paolini missed two break points at 3-2 15-40 before dropping her serve in the next game at 15. The Italian player saved a set point at 4-5 and broke back to draw level to 5-5. Mertens broke again in the 11th game and served out the first set on her third set point to win the first set 7-5. 

Mertens went up a break to take a 3-1 lead, but Paolini broke back to draw level to 3-3. Paolini saved two game points in the 10th game before breaking serve to win the second set 6-4. Mertens earned an early break in the first game of the third set. In the next game Paolini missed two break-back points. 

Paolini broke back in the fourth game, but she dropped her serve in the fifth game after missing a game point for 3-2. Mertens held her service game after saving a break point to take a 4-2 lead. The Belgian player broke again in the eighth game at 15 at 5-3 and secured the win on the first match point. 

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