EXCLUSIVE French Open Preview: Djokovic Must Improve His Second Serve, Barty Among Three Contenders For Women's Title - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE French Open Preview: Djokovic Must Improve His Second Serve, Barty Among Three Contenders For Women’s Title

Can Rafael Nadal be stopped at Roland Garros? What areas of Novak Djokovic’s game have let him down in the past? What makes Ash Barty different from others? UbiTennis turns to an expert in tennis analytics for answers.

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Pallina al Roland Garros 2021 (foto Twitter @rolandgarros)

Over the coming two weeks, the world’s best tennis players will lock horns in Paris as they bid to win the most prestigious clay court event of the calendar.

The 125th French Open is once again taking place in late spring after last year’s edition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – this edition has been delayed too, but only by a week. Leading up to the Grand Slam, organisers revealed a statue of 13-time champion Rafael Nadal to mark his dominance. The question is: can he continue his winning momentum against the formidable Novak Djokovic and the next generation of players poised to replace him when he retires?

 

As for the women, Iga Swiatek seeks to become the first player since Justin Henin more than a decade ago to defend her title. In the usually unpredictable women’s draw, she faces stiff opposition from the likes of Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. Then there is the question of how Serena Williams will fair.

Ahead of the tournament, UbiTennis spoke to tennis coach and analyst Mike James about what tennis fans should expect at the French Open. James is the founder of Sportiii Analytics and is in charge of providing technical data to Swiatek’s team. His company has also recently secured a deal to work with the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.

UBITENNIS: Rafael Nadal is statistically the most dominant player at the French Open. If players want to stop him, what areas of his game do you think they should be attacking when playing him?

JAMES: To Beat Rafa on clay is the most challenging thing to do in sport, let alone tennis. He has a 98% win record at the French Open (100-2). When I’ve scouted him in the past on other surfaces, it’s always been about attacking and going fast into his forehand. Then exposing the space (on the court). Not going into the backhand too early (in rallies) because the backhand is devastating.

But ultimately it’s on his terms on clay. The only time really when somebody came onto the clay court and took it to him was Robin Söderling. The deal with Robin was very simple. He had power to produce over four-and-a-half hours and repeat a high level of forehand and backhands that allowed him to go over the line that day.

Rafa doesn’t have any holes in his game and this is the challenge for every player. They have to hope he is 10 or 20 percent off and to be having their career-best day.

UBITENNIS: Novak Djokovic has incredibly only won the French Open once. Have you ever noticed any traits in his game which explains why he hasn’t been so fortunate compared to other Slams, besides the fact he has played Nadal?

JAMES: Novak has had an amazing career on the clay but he has only won the French Open once. He has losses to Cecchinato, Theim…… From a numbers point of view you can really see it’s the second serve and the second serve returns that he’s not the highest level at.

If you look at the second serve return ratings in 2019, he was actually ranked 23rd in the world on clay. On second serves, he was ranked just outside the top 10. So actually for all his quality at the back of the court, his second serve and second serve numbers are not quite at the highest level compared to Rafa, Thiem, Tsitsipas and these guys. This is an area of the game that I will look at in terms of improvements. (If he has) it is really going to help him against Thiem and Rafa this year.

UBITENNIS: Outside of the Big Three, who should be considered the biggest contender(s) for the men’s title and why?

JAMES: I think outside the Big Three, the number one at the moment for sure is Tsitsipas.  He’s won titles lately, had match points against Rafa in Barcelona and really looks like a quality operator on the clay. He has all the toolkit to produce his best tennis on clay. It suits his game. He’s also creative which I think suits him because he has a bit more time.

Outside of this, maybe Casper Ruud is a dark horse pushing into the second week.

UBITENNIS: On the women’s side Ash Barty has been quite impressive on the clay and she is a former champion. There is a lot of depth in the women’s game, but would you rank her as the top name to watch out for?

JAMES: Ash Barty has had a good season at the moment. She hasn’t been home and it’s an incredible run for her. I think that, if she is fully fit, she is definitely one of the favourites. I think Iga (Swiatek) is in that mix as well, and Aryna Sabalenka. They would be my top three to have a shot at the title. Of course in the women’s game there could always be a dark horse but I feel they are established on the clay and are the main contenders.

UBITENNIS: Another Barty question – what areas of her game stand out compared to her peers and why?

JAMES: I think Barty’s game is ultimately like Swiatek, Andreescu and Osaka. These top players can do everything, which never used to be the case on the women’s tour. From a strategic point of view, looking at Barty, this year her T-serve is probably the best in the world at the moment. Her ability to slice and change the rhythm is fantastic. On returns, as well, she is making many. She really does have the quality and mentality. She is so calm and so focused, you don’t see her getting too pumped or too down. This is a huge benefit going into the French Open.

UBITENNIS: There is also Serena Williams and her quest for No.24. She’s obviously one of the most powerful on the WTA Tour, but what areas of her game does she need to ensure is at its best and why?

JAMES: Ultimately, she has not played enough tennis over the last 18 months, which is first and foremost. I think age is unfortunately catching up with her a little bit. Her movement on clay is not as good as it is on a hardcourt, and the girls get a little bit more time against her. Even when she is producing a lot of power on the clay. I think it’s going to be very, very tough for her to even get through the first week, unfortunately. She’s been an amazing player and ambassador for the women’s game, but I think it’s time for the Next Generation. 

UBITENNIS: Who would you view as the biggest underdogs in the tournament?

JAMES: Biggest underdogs that actually have a chance to do something, on the men’s side, are Casper Ruud or Jannik Sinner. On the female side, it is a lottery. There are some very interesting players at the moment that are doing well. I think Coco Gauff has shown that she can compete on the clay. Winning the title in Parma has been a great boost for her, and she also had a great match against Swiatek in Rome.

UBITENNIS: Finally, night sessions are being held for the first time. How problematic could this be for players considering there may be quite a considerable change in conditions compared to daytime? Is there an easy solution to this or not, based on your experience?

JAMES: Night sessions are going to be very interesting. They are going to make conditions heavy. I think for somebody like Iga (Swiatek) this is going to be a great situation for the ball to be heavy. For some players who are not very powerful, I think it’s going to be a challenge for them when the ball gets damp and heavy. The scheduling for the player if they finish late poses other issues too: their recovery, cool down and sleeping patterns are also going to be affected. So this will be a real challenge for players this season and a unique situation for the French Open.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Iga Swiatek Goes for her 31st Consecutive Victory

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A shot from the grounds of the French Open (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

This century, as per the WTA, Iga Swiatek is tied for fifth-most 6-0 sets won in a season.  And it’s still only May.  The 2020 champion will look to continue her dominance on Saturday against Danka Kovinic, won who an ITF-level clay event earlier this month.

 

Other third round action on Saturday includes Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Paula Badosa.

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


Andrey Rublev (7) vs. Cristian Garin – 11:00am on Court 14

Rublev won a clay event in Belgrade last month, yet went just 2-2 between Madrid and Rome.  Thus far, he’s dropped a set in each of his first two matches.  So Andrey is not currently in his top form.  And his history at this event is rather up-and-down: he reached the quarterfinals in 2020, but lost in the first round in his other two previous appearances.  Garin excels on this surface: all five of his career ATP titles have come on clay, and he advanced to the fourth round here a year ago.  After surprisingly struggling on clay this February in South America, where he went 0-3, the Chilean was a semifinalist in Houston and a quarterfinalist in Madrid.  Andrey is 2-0 against Cristian, which includes a win on clay three years ago in Hamburg.  Garin should certainly test Rublev, and if he does, Andrey needs to avoid allowing his temper to get the best of him as it recently has.  But the seventh seed has the necessary fire power to dictate play and prevail.


Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Danika Kovinic – 12:00pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

Kovinic is a 27-year-old from Montenegro who, after never getting beyond the second round of a Major for eight years, is now into the third round at the second consecutive Slam  At January’s Australian Open, she upset US Open champ Emma Raducanu.  And she’s 12-4 this year on clay at all levels.  But defeating another Slam champ on Saturday will be a daunting task.  Swiatek has not lost since February 16th, and she’s 16-2 lifetime at this event, with her only losses coming against top 10 opposition (Halep, Sakkari).  Iga is a huge favorite to make the second week of this event for the fourth straight year, something she’s never failed to do.


Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Miomir Kecmanovic (28) – Second on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Coming off a near two-month layoff for hernia surgery, and an 0-1 record on clay this season, not much was expected of Medvedev heading into this fortnight.  But he’s played at a high level this week, and is yet to drop a set.  However, Kecmanovic will be a big step up in competition.  The 22-year-old is in the top 20 of the year-to-date rankings, thanks to 25 match wins.  Miomir has achieved six quarterfinals this season, and he’s coached by a man who knows plenty about playing on clay: two-time French Open semifinalist David Nalbandian.  Medvedev and Kecmanovic have never played before, and an upset of the No.2 seed would not be shocking considering Miomir’s recent form, as well as Daniil’s lack of play and lack of love for this surface.


Paula Badosa (3) vs. Veronika Kudermetova (29) – Third on Court Suzanne Lenglen

This is their third meeting this season, and Badosa crushed Kudermetova in their first two.  In Indian Wells, Paula won 6-3, 6-2.  In Madrid, it was 6-3, 6-0.  However, Veronika claimed their three earlier encounters, two of which occurred last year, and one of which was on clay.  Kudermetova reached a clay final last month in Istanbul, but then promptly lost three straight matches heading into this event, including the Madrid loss to Badosa.  Paula was an excellent 17-3 on clay last year, though she’s yet to play at her top level this season on this surface.  But based on their recent history, Badosa is a considerable favorite to even their overall head-to-head.


Holger Rune vs. Hugo Gaston – Not Before 8:45pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

These are two of the ATP’s most exciting young stars, who will deservedly receive the spotlight of the night session on Saturday night in Paris.  21-year-old Gaston made his Major breakthrough at this event two years ago, as the Frenchman electrified the Parisian audience with his surprising run to the fourth round.  Hugo defeated two-time finalist Dominic Thiem in five sets, and then almost upset another Major champion Stan Wawrinka, eventually losing in five, but not before hitting an astounding 58 drop shots.  19-year-old Rune made a name for himself at last year’s US open by taking a set off Novak Djokovic.  And within the last two months, Rune has claimed two clay titles, one at Challenger level and one at tour level.  Holger is yet to drop a set this week, while Hugo again enthused his home country with a victory over Alex de Minaur in a fifth-set tiebreak.  The French crowd played a huge role in that outcome, and they’ll look to do the same on Saturday evening.  But in their first career meeting, the more in-form player should be favored, and that definitively is Rune.  Prior to this tournament, Gaston was only 4-9 on the year.


Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Aryna Sabalenka (7) vs. Camila Giorgi (28) – These are two of the WTA’s hardest ball strikers.  They have split two previous meetings, with their clay court matchup going to Sabalenka.

Jessica Pegula (11) vs. Tamara Zidansek (24) – Pegula has required 19 match points across her first two matches to advance.  Zidansek was a surprise semifinalist here a year ago, but had a losing record on the year coming into this event.  Two years in Auckland, Pegula defeated Zidansek 6-2, 6-3.

Hubert Hurkacz (12) vs. David Goffin – Hurkacz has advanced via two three-setters, while Goffin has advanced via two four-setters.  Just a few weeks ago in Rome, Goffin overcame Hurkacz in two sets decided by tiebreaks.

Marin Cilic (20) vs. Gilles Simon (WC) – Simon is one of the best stories of this first week.  Gilles was 1-4 at tour level this season, but in his last Roland Garros, the Frenchman has thrilled the Parisian crowd with surprising victories over Pablo Carreno Busta and Steve Johnson.  And he’s 6-1 lifetime against Cilic, with Marin’s only win coming in a five-setter at the 2014 US Open.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Mikael Ymer – Tsitsipas has really struggled through two rounds, already spending nearly eight hours on court.  Ymer is yet to go beyond the third round of a Slam, and is 0-3 against the Greek.

Elena Rybakina (16) vs. Madison Keys (22) – Rybakina was a quarterfinalist here a year ago, though Keys has reached the quarters or better twice.  This is their first meeting.

Casper Ruud (8) vs. Lorenzo Sonego (32) – Despite owning seven ATP titles on clay, Ruud is 0-3 in the third round of Roland Garros.  Sonego reached the fourth round two years ago, and is yet to drop a set this week.  Ruud is 3-0 against Sonego, and has won six of their seven sets.


Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Seeds Collide as Third Round Action Begins

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Carlos Alcaraz on Wednesday in Paris (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

Third round singles action commences on Friday in Paris, featuring some big names and some big matchups.  Major champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, and Sloane Stephens will all be in action, as will Carlos Alcaraz and Sascha Zverev, both of whom had to save match point on Wednesday.  Overall, six singles matches see seeded players face off.

 

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


Amanda Anisimova (27) vs. Karolina Muchova – 11:00am on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Both players have already earned impressive wins this fortnight: Anisimova over Naomi Osaka, and Muchova over Maria Sakkari.  And both are Major semifinalists: Amanda at this event three years ago, and Karolina last year in Melbourne.  But due to an abdominal injury, Muchova has only played eight matches since last August.  Anisimova is a strong 22-8 on the year, and has reached the quarterfinals or better at every clay event she’s played in 2022.  In their first career meeting, Amanda’s superior level of confidence, paired with her impressive backhand, make her the favorite to prevail.


Diego Schwartzman (15) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (18) – 11:00am on Court Simonne Mathieu

Schwartzman is the far more accomplished clay court player, but Dimitrov is the player who has advanced much more comfortably to this stage.  Grigor has dropped only 10 games across six sets, while Diego has survived a four-setter and a five-setter.  And Dimitrov is 3-1 against Schwartzman, having taken their last three meetings.  That includes a dominant win on clay just a few weeks ago in Madrid by a score of 6-0, 6-3.  Based on recent evidence, Dimitrov may be poised to advance to the second week of this tournament for just the second time in his career. 


Belinda Bencic (14) vs. Leylah Fernandez (17) – 12:00pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

In the last round, Bencic earned an impressive straight-set win over another young Canadian, Bianca Andreescu.  Neither Belinda nor Leylah has dropped a set through two rounds.  Bencic was a champion on clay last month in Charleston, but Fernandez has struggled at WTA clay events this season, with a record of only 2-3 before arriving in Paris.  Yet it’s worth remembering Belinda’s past struggles at this event, as she held a 5-5 record prior to this fortnight.  And as we learned at last year’s US Open, Fernandez thrives on big stages.  Their only previous encounter occurred two years ago in the Billie Jean King Cup, which went to Fernandez in straight sets.  And I give Leylah the slight edge to defeat Belinda again on Friday after what will likely be an extended tussle.


Rafael Nadal (5) vs. Botic van de Zandschulp (26) – Third on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Nadal arrived in Paris with questions swirling regarding the status of his chronically-injured foot, which was obviously bothering him in Rome.  But it hasn’t impacted his performance thus far, as he’s dropped only 14 games through six sets.  Van de Zandschulp made his Major breakthrough at last year’s US Open, when he was a surprise quarterfinalist as a qualifier ranked 117th in the world.  And he’s followed that up with more good results, such as reaching the final in Munich last month.  But defeating the King of Clay, who is 107-3 at Roland Garros, would be a truly shocking result, though I’m curious to see if Botic can provide Rafa with his first real test this week.


Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Sebastian Korda (27) – Not Before 8:45pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

Korda remains the only player to defeat Alcaraz on clay this year, which he did in Monte Carlo.  It was quite a dramatic three-hour affair.  Carlitos was fresh off the biggest title of his career in Miami, so a letdown was only normal.  And Alcaraz hasn’t lost since.  The 19-year-old Spaniard is on a 12-match winning streak, and is now 30-3 this season.  Korda has earned up-and-down results this clay court season, with some first-round losses as well as a semifinal run in Estoril.  Their other prior meeting was the championship match of November’s NextGen Finals, which Carlitos won in straight sets.  And considering Alcaraz will likely play more freely on Friday after escaping near-defeat in the last round, he is a clear favorite to be victorious on Friday night under the lights on Chatrier.


Other Notable Matches on Friday:

Coco Gauff (18) vs. Kaia Kanepi – When these players met last year on clay in Parma, Gauff prevailed after two tight tiebreak-sets.

Angelique Kerber (21) vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich – The only other time since 2016 Kerber has advanced out of the first round, she made the quarterfinals.  Sasnovich took out Emma Raducanu on Wednesday.  Angie leads their head-to-head 2-0, which includes a three-set match just last week in Strasbourg.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Aljaz Bedene – Djokovic hasn’t lost in the third round of a Major since Wimbledon 2016, when he was upset by Sam Querrey.  Bedene has never gone beyond the third round at a Slam, and is 0-3 against Novak, having never claimed a set.

Victoria Azarenka (15) vs. jil Teichmann (23) – This is a rematch from the second round of the last Major, when Azarenka comfortably dismissed Teichmann 6-1, 6-2.  Jil is 10-3 on clay this season, while Vika is 6-2.

Sloane Stephens vs. Diane Parry – Coming into this event, Stephens was 0-4 on clay this year, yet has toughed out two three-setters this week.  Parry is a 19-year-old Frenchwoman who upset defending champion Barbora Krejcikova in the first round.

Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Brandon Nakashima – Zverev saved match point in the last round against Sebastian Baez.  This is 20-year-old Nakashima’s first appearance in the third round of a Major.  Two years ago at the US open, Sascha defeated Brandon in four.

Cam Norrie (10) vs. Karen Khachanov (21) – Khachanov has reached the fourth round in four of the last five years.  Norrie is yet to do so at any Slam, with an 0-4 record in this round.  But the Brit is 3-2 against Karen, and 2-0 on clay.


Friday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Iga Swiatek Goes for her 30th Consecutive Win

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Iga Swiatek practicing in Paris (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

Over the past three months, Iga Swiatek has dominated the WTA tour, more so than any player since Serena Williams.  Swiatek has won 29 straight matches, and 5 straight titles.  In the second round, she goes for her 30th consecutive win over American Alison Riske.

 

Thursday also sees other top seeds in second round action, such as Daniil Medvedev, Paula Badosa, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.  And the women finally receive the spotlight of the night session, with two players who have a flair for the dramatic: France’s Alize Cornet, and 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko.

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


Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Laslo Djere – 12:00pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

Medvedev missed nearly two months of action due to hernia surgery, playing only one match on clay ahead of this event, yet still easily advanced on Tuesday.  But in the second round, he faces a player who had some nice results on clay this season.  Djere reached the semis of Marrakech, and thoroughly tested fellow Serbian Novak Djokovic in Belgrade.  He’s also 1-0 against Medvedev, though that victory came five years ago, and with Medvedev retiring mid-match, back when he was ranked 184th in the world.  Now the world No.2, Danill should be able to prevail over Djere despite his recent inactivity, and his aversion to this surface.


Frances Tiafoe (24) vs. David Goffin – Second on Court Simonne Mathieu

Following six first round losses at this event, which included four five-setters, Tiafoe finally earned his first French Open victory on Tuesday over Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi.  Goffin has a much richer history at this tournament.  It was 10 years ago when the Belgian made his Major breakthrough, advancing to the fourth round in his first main draw appearance at a Slam.  Then in 2016, he was a quarterfinalist in Paris.  Goffin missed much of 2021 due to injury, but has rebounded nicely in 2022, winning a clay court title last month in Marrakech.  Tiafoe reached a clay final in Estoril, though he arrived in Paris on a three-match losing streak.  David leads their head-to-head 3-1, and considering his far-better results at Roland Garros, he is a considerable favorite to make that 4-1 after what should be an entertaining battle.


Madison Keys (22) vs. Caroline Garcia – Second on Court Philippe Chatrier

After a dismal 2021 season, one in which Keys openly admits she lost the joy in her game, Madison had an excellent start this year.  In January alone, the American won more matches than in all of 2021.  Yet since reaching the quarterfinals of Indian Wells, Keys has again struggled, and is just 2-3 on clay.  Garcia was a top five player less than four years ago, but over the last few seasons, has lost as many matches as she’s won.  Prior to this event, Caroline missed the entire clay court season due to a foot injury.  Keys is 2-1 against Garcia, and claimed their last two encounters in straight sets.  Keys often peaks at the Majors: since 2015, she’s reached the second week of Slams 16 times.  And with the pressure of the Parisian crowd weighing on an unconfident Garcia, I like Madison’s chances to be victorious.


Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Alison Riske – Third on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Swiatek has not only been winning a lot, she’s been winning extremely efficiently.  Out of her 29 straight wins, 23 have been in straight sets.  On Monday, she crushed Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0.  And she is 2-0 against Riske, with both wins coming last season on clay.  Riske was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 2019, when she upset then-world No.1 Ash Barty.  But before this week, she was 1-7 lifetime at Roland Garros, and between 2019 and 2021, went 0-8 on clay.  So another upset over a world No.1 on Thursday would be shocking.  This should be another straightforward victory for Iga.


Jelena Ostapenko (13) vs. Alize Cornet – Not Before 8:45pm on Court Philippe Chatrier

Since her shocking run to the championship five years ago, Ostapenko is a meager 3-4 at this event, with three first-round losses.  But she advanced easily on Tuesday, as did Cornet.  And Alize coming off a huge milestone at the last Major, where she achieved her first Slam quarterfinal.  This is Cornet’s 18th consecutive appearance at the French Open, where she owns a 20-17 record.  She is vying to reach the third round for the first time in five years.  They have split four previous meetings, all of which occurred on hard courts.  Both players arrived in Paris on significant losing streaks: Cornet had lost four in a row, while Ostapenko had list five.  But Alize can often thrive on big stages, and will surely relish the chance to play in the night session on Chatrier.  An inspired effort from the Frenchwoman, and a boisterous French crowd, could easily get under the thin skin of Jelena.  I would not be surprised to see Cornet prevail under the lights.


Other Notable Matches on Thursday:

Paula Badosa (3) vs. Kaja Juvan – Badosa easily won her opening round 6-2, 6-0.  Juvan is a 21-year-old from Slovenia who was a finalist just last week on clay in Strasbourg. 

Steve Johnson vs. Gilles Simon (WC) – Johnson defeated Jiri Vesely on Tuesday in four sets, while Simon upset Pablo Carreno Busta in a late-night, five-set thriller.  The Frenchman took their only career meeting eight years ago in Tokyo.

Simona Halep (19) vs. Qinwen Zheng – Halep needed three sets to get past a qualifier on Tuesday.  Qinwen dropped only four games in her first round contest.  Earlier this season in the semifinals of an Australian Open tune-up event, Halep defeated Qinwen 6-3, 6-2.

Danielle Collins (9) vs. Shelby Rogers – The Australian Open runner-up is just 3-2 on clay this year, though Rogers was 0-3 on this surface coming into this event.  They have split two previous meetings, both of which occurred last August.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Zdenek Kolar (Q) – Tsitsipas came back from two sets down to outlast Lorenzo Musetti on Tuesday.  Kolar is a 25-year-old from the Czech Republic who defeated France’s Lucas Pouille in his first main draw match at a Major, after failing to qualify at 16 previous Slams. 


Thursday’s full Order of Play is here.

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