PARIS, June 1, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
As Day 7 unfolded with the completion of the women’s third-round singles at Roland Garros on Saturday, defending champion Simona Halep entered her match against No. 27 seed Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine on Court Philippe Chatrier having lost just one set in seven previous meetings – all the way back at Wimbledon 2014, when Halep prevailed 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. Talk about dominance over an opponent – and the talented Romanian with the great work ethic has already beaten Tsurenko twice this year, in Doha and Dubai, both on hard courts.
Meanwhile, World No. 1 Naomi Osaka from Japan, came into her match against No. 42 Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic looking to become the first Japanese player to earn a fourth-round berth at Roland Garros since Shinobu Asagoe in 2004. It didn’t happen.
Instead, the upstart Siniakova pulled off the biggest upset of this year’s French Open by defeating Osaka, 6-4, 6-2, in one hour and 17 minutes. It was the fifth Top 10 win for Siniakova, who is doubles World No. 1, and her first against a Top 3 player.
After stumbling in the opening set in both of her first two matches, against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova and Victoria Azarenka, the pressure was off Osaka as far as rankings were concerned. She was guaranteed to retain her No. 1 ranking after the completion of the French Open next weekend, thanks to World No. 2 Karolina Pliskova’s third-round loss to Petra Martic on Friday.
However, Osaka’s streak of winning consecutive Grand Slam titles ended at two. A chance for three came crashing down when the Czech outplayed the World No. 1 and top seed. Osaka was 0-for-7 in break-point conversions and saw her own serve broken three times. Although Siniakova finished with just 12 winners and hit 13 unforced errors, Osaka committed 38 unforced errors. Siniakova outpointed Osaka 67-56.
Before Siniakova’s upset of Osaka, nothing suggested that the No. 3 seed Halep, who is now the highest remaining seed left, wouldn’t win and advance to the second week of the French Open.
Halep didn’t disappoint anyone. In fact, she made quick and easy work of Tsurenko, who turned 30 this week, winning 6-2, 6-1 in just 55 minutes. The 5-foot-6 Halep won by controlling the net, by garnering points consistently on her returns, and by causing Tsurenko into committing unforced errors – 32 in all. The Ukrainian didn’t help her cause as she amassed five double faults. Winning points in a variety of ways – drive volleys, drop shots – Halep outpointed Tsurenko 55-30.
“I had in my head that I have to stay very strong, to play more aggressive, to stay closer to the baseline, which I did, and when I have the chance, to open the court,” Halep said during her press conference after the match.
“Before the match, I was really nervous. I have to admit big emotions, but it’s normal. I’m here again, I’m feeling good, and I have expectations for myself to play good tennis.”
So, as Halep heads into the second week at the French Open for the fifth time, where she awaits the outcome of the match between No. 59 Monica Puig of Puerto Rico or the just-turned 18-year-old Iga Swiatek of Poland, ranked No. 104, to determine her next opponent, it’s important to ask this: why is Halep so successful at Roland Garros, where she’s won 16 of her last 17 matches and played in each of the past two finals?
“This tournament is quite different for me of course. I really like the clay in Paris, it is harder and drier than anywhere else,” Halep said in an interview with rolandgarros.com, the tournament’s official website. “The game is faster, the ball bounces better, it suits my style. I like it today but when I played here for the first time as a junior in 2007, I was completely lost. I was eliminated in the first round. The clay was nothing like the one I used to play on in Romania. In my country, it is heavier, a bit like the one in Rome and Madrid. But I got used to it and my game improved. I even won the Roland-Garros Junior Championship the year after, in 2008. Roland-Garros is special for me, I love its cosy atmosphere.”
Around Roland Garros
• No. 14 seed Madison Keys, a 2018 semifinalist, defeated qualifier Anna Blinkova of Russia, No. 117, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, to advance against Katerina Siniakova. Before the match, Keys was asked to describe what it’s like playing a qualifier in a Grand Slam, somebody who’s got nothing to lose. She said, “It’s always a little bit tough, but it’s also expected, knowing that they are probably going to play some of their best tennis and just go for it.”
Keys came into Roland Garros having won the title at Charleston in April on green clay. “It think it’s just been lots of years on clay now and understanding how I have to adapt my game a little bit to play on the surface. More than that, just feeling more and more comfortable with my movement and not rushing to finish points.”
What they’re saying
• With her 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 9 seed Elina Svitolina on Friday, No. 19 seed Garbiñe Muguruza has advanced her to the Roland Garros round of 16 for the sixth consecutive year. She said: “I managed to dominate and play cleverly, and that gave results. I am very pleased about this match and it will give me a lot of confidence. I’m trying to approach each match like a final and I’m giving the best I have.
“I don’t know what it is about Roland Garros that gives me always a nice mood and my tennis develops much better I feel very good in this tournament.”
• No. 12 seed Anastasija Sevastova, on the wide-open lower half of the draw, following the loss of No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova: “Everyone can play tennis here. And there are so many young girls up and coming. Maybe, they’re not seeded but they play great on clay, like (Petra) Martic. I mean, I think she was seeded, but she won (Friday). And (Marketa) Vondroussova, she’s had a great season.”
• No. 7 seed Sloane Stephens, who is only one of two players remaining in the lower half of the draw who have won a Grand Slam (2017 U.S. Open). The other is Garbiñe Muguruza (2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon) – and she and Stephens meet in the fourth round. Stephens was asked about it after her third-round win on Friday. She said, “Draws are meant to fall apart.”
What they’re tweeting
• Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill), former Simona Halep coach, commenting on No. 12 seed Anastasija Sevastova’s three-set win over No. 20 seed Elise Mertens, which ended with Sevastova saving five match points and winning 11-9 in the third: “A couple of millimeters on a clutch backhand down the line from Sevastova the difference between winning or losing. It can be a brutal sport but classy handshake hug from Mertens at the end. Great match from both.”