MELBOURNE, January 23, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
No. 6 seed Belinda Bencic withstood the challenge from former French Open champion and junior rival Jelena Ostapenko on Thursday at the Australian Open. Ultimately, the Swiss former World No. 4 prevailed 7-5, 7-5 in an entertaining match filled with plenty of momentum swings that spread over their one hour and 41 minute match on Margaret Court Arena.
Bencic was born in 1997, the same year as No. 45 Ostapenko. They’ve been playing each other going all the way back to when both were 10 years old. Ostapenko won their most recent head-to-head, in 2018, while Bencic went on to reach the US Open semifinals last year.
While the start of many matches were delayed due to a blanket of red dust covering many of the hard court surfaces, Bencic and Ostapenko played on and Bencic closed out her win with a service ace, one of her 16 winners. Ostapenko finished with 36 winners, but her 37 unforced errors and nine double faults were her own undoing.
“I think the strength of my game is to kind of find solutions on the court, and try to beat my opponent just with what I have on this given day,” Bencic said during her post-match press conference. “Obviously, I know I’m not the biggest power player or best serve or best forehand or something, but I feel like I have an all-around game and I know how to play every shot. I just try to kind of outplay my opponents.”
Next, Bencic will face No. 28 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who defeated 91st-ranked Sara Sorribes Tormo from Spain, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1.
Muguruza happy with win
Two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain needed three sets to beat No. 52 Ajla Tomljanovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the opening match on Rod Laver Arena. In improving her head-to-head record against the Australian to 2-1, Muguruza hit 34 winners and broke her opponent four times. The last time they met was in the Monterrey, Mexico quarterfinals last year en route to Muguruza’s most recent title.
“I was expecting a tough match because we had played before and I saw she was having good matches,” Muguruza said after her win. “So I was ready for a battle. At the end of the third set, it was very close for both of us. Just happy with the way I played and how I managed to close it up in those final games.”
The Spanish former World No. 1, whose ranking has slipped to No. 32, is trying work her way back after withdrawing from last week’s Hobart International with a viral illness after reaching the quarterfinals. Muguruza had a huge smile on her face after match point. “It was very close at the end, so I has happy to get the win,” she said.
“You know, like everybody, you work hard. You put the hours there. When you win the match, you know, nothing is guaranteed. So, you really appreciate the moment.
“Really quickly, you start thinking about, you know, I have got another match coming up. But you know, I’m happy to win matches like this where there’s stuff and you’ve got to hang in there and, you know, you get out with a smile.”
Now into the third round, Muguruza’s next foe will be No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, a 6-2, 7-6 (6) winner over No. 62 Lauren Davis of the United States. Svitolina and Davis were the last match on court Thursday night and didn’t finish until 12:46 a.m. Friday. It was Svitolina’s fifth straight win over the American.
“It was very tough. It’s always tough to play against Lauren,” Svitolina said during an on-court interview after her victory. “She always goes you one extra ball. You have to move your feet well to adjust to her flat shots. I was moving well today and now we can all go to bed!”
Vekic checking off goals
One of No. 19 seed Donna Vekic’s goals this year was to reach the third round of the Australian Open. Mission accomplished. The Croatian reached the last 32 for the first time in her eighth consecutive Melbourne appearance with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 61 Alizé Cornet from France that was completed in 91 minutes. It erased a streak of three straight years that Vekic had been ousted in the second round.
“I had great support today,” said Vekic, who advanced to play No. 56 Iga Switek of Poland, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over Carla Suárez Navarro of Spain, playing in her last Australian Open before she retires at the end of the season. “It’s nice to see so many Croatians here.”
👋A fond farewell to @CarlaSuarezNava, who is retiring at the end of the 2020 season.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2020
Pliskova eases into third round
Former World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova has yet to drop a set in two matches. The second-seeded Czech Republic star a eased into the third round with a 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 72 Laura Siegemund of Germany, needing just 86 minutes on Rod Laver Arena. She hit 22 winners – eight of them aces – and 15 unforced errors, while Siegemund finished with 20 winners against 24 unforced errors. Pliskova’s serve was broken just once.
“I’m not sure if it was really nice tennis today. I think she has a very ugly game for me, so I’m never going to feel amazing playing her,” said Pliskova, who reached the Australian Open semifinal round a year ago. “I’m just happy to be through because this was an ugly match for me. Last time we played was on clay, and I think she’s more difficult on that surface. So, I’m just happy I’m through and hopefully I can feel better in my next round.”
Next, Pliskova will oppose No. 30 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who advanced over No. 79 American Taylor Townsend, 7-5, 7-6 (1).
Halep holds on for back-to-back wins
No. 3 seed Simona Halep moved into the third round with a 6-2, 6-4 win over 173rd-ranked British qualifier Harriet Dart on Rod Laver Arena to open the night session. The Romanian went three-for-three on break points in the opening set and darted to a 4-0 lead in the second to earn her first back-to-back victories since last August.
While Halep earned her 90th Grand Slam win with her victory against Dart, she suggested afterward that it was not easy at all. “Even if she doesn’t hit very hard, she has good angles. Her ball doesn’t have that much power to play against. I had to work a little bit more,” she said.
“I was leading pretty well at 5-1. But then, I don’t know what happened, I lost focus a little bit and she started to play freely. She didn’t miss that much. I played a little bit short. Then she controlled me a little bit.
“But I’m happy I could hold that last game. That was important.”
Halep’s next test will come against No. 38 Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, who upset No. 26 seed Danielle Collins of the United States, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. Collins reached the Australian Open semifinals last year.
What a win for @PutintsevaYulia 🙌
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 23, 2020
Former AO champion Kerber staying focused
Four years removed from winning the Australian Open in 2016, Angelique Kerber came into the year’s first Grand Slam ranked number 18. On Thursday, the 17th-seeded German eased her way into the third round in straight sets over Australian wild card entry Priscilla Hon, 6-3, 6-2, on Margaret Court Arena.
“It’s a great feeling to have now two matches under my belt with two sets, where I played a little bit better today than in the first round,” Kerber said of her 72-minute victory against the 139th-ranked Hon. “Just improving step by step, trying to play good tennis in every single round.”
Although Hon hit 22 winners, the Aussie’s 33 unforced errors were something that Kerber took advantage of. Meanwhile, Kerber finished the match with 14 winners and just 11 unforced errors.
Next, Kerber will take on big hitting Camila Giorgi. The 102nd-ranked Italian upset two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, now ranked 53rd, 6-3, 6-1 in 63 minutes.
Around Melbourne Park
• No. 9 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands clinched a berth in the third round for just the second time with her 6-3, 7-5 win over the 163rd-ranked Australian wild card Arina Rodionova. Bertens will face No. 73 Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in her next match. Diyas won her second straight three-setter when she came back to beat No. 58 Anna Blinkova of Russia, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, after previously upsetting No. 21 seed Amanda Anisimova in the first round earlier this week.
• No. 16 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium beat No. 75 Heather Watson of Great Britain, 6-3, 6-0, a week after the Briton had won their quarterfinal battle in Hobart during a tuneup tournament. Next, the 17th-ranked Mertens will play No. 600 Catherine Bellis of the United States, who continued her comeback after being sidelined for 17 months and enduring four wrist surgeries. Bellis scored a 6-4, 6-4 upset win over No. 20 seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.
‘Dirty rain’ delays play on outer courts
Play was delayed for several hours Thursday on Melbourne Park’s outer courts, coated in red dust, following an overnight rain. The layer of dust made the outside courts unplayable during the morning. It was a fallout from the muddy rain linked to the Australian bushfires. At the start of the day, only the three show courts – Rod Laver Arena, Margaret Court Arena and Melbourne Arena – had matches in progress and all with their retractable roofs closed. The other courts required power washing to make them playable. Play was further delayed by additional rain that fell in the early afternoon.
“First it was sunny, almost raining, windy,” Belinda Bencic said after completing her second-round match against Jelena Ostapenko on Margaret Court Arena. “You just have to accept it and try your best to adapt.”
Angelique Kerber, who followed Bencic on Margaret Court Arena said: “It’s Melbourne, you never know what to expect. So I was just trying, you know, to focus on my game, playing how the game plan was, not really thinking about the weather conditions.”
Because of the weather and court delays, a total of 16 doubles matches (11 women’s and 5 men’s) were postponed and rescheduled to Friday.
• Thursday’s day session attendance reached 46,533 and the evening session drew 25,446 for a total of 71,979 for the fourth day of the Australian fortnight.
Gauff looks forward to Osaka rematch
On Friday, 15-year-old Coco Gauff will take on defending Australian Open champion and former No. 1 Naomi Osaka for the second straight Grand Slam. It will be featured during the night session on Rod Laver Arena.
The No. 67 Gauff rallied from a set down and 0-3 in the second set against Sorana Cirstea of Romania and rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory during her second-round match on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the fourth-ranked Osaka won for the second time this fortnight with a straightforward 6-2, 6-4 win over Zheng Saisai of China.
Gauff and Osaka had their first meeting at night inside Arthur Ashe Stadium last September, also in the third round, that was won by the Japanese star 6-3, 6-0. It was after the match that worldwide attention was garnered, thanks to an emotional scene that took place when both players were interviewed on court. As a tearful Gauff was ready to leave the court to thunderous applause, she was invited by Osaka to stay and be interviewed together. It turned into a wonderful expression of sportsmanship.
“She proved that she’s a true athlete,” Gauff said of Osaka.
Now, Gauff looks forward to the rematch and believes she’ll be better prepared. “I’ll be less nervous this time,” she said on Wednesday after beating Cirstea. “I think US Open I was nervous. It was my first time on Ashe.
“We’re both familiar with each other’s games. She plays really aggressive. This time coming in I’m going to be more aggressive.
“I think in general my mindset has always been nothing to lose really. Even when in juniors, even though I was ranked pretty high in juniors, I was technically supposed to win. Then, I still felt like I had nothing to lose.
“I still feel that now. I think my mindset just is I’m going to fight. If I lose, the world is not going to end. I’m going to have another match in maybe a week or so.“
What they’re tweeting
Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist on the Williams sisters: “Serena was asked how sad she’d be if Venus were to retire at the end of the year. Her answer: ‘Venus will outplay me, for sure. She loves tennis a lot. She works hard on it. Just gets unlucky sometimes heath-wise obviously. I mean, I can’t speak for her, but it would be sad.’”
What they’re saying
Serena Williams on Coco Gauff: “She’s just impressive all around, from her personality to the way she plays. I think it’s just all super impressive. I was nowhere near her level at 15, either on the court or off the court, not even close. I know kids are growing up different nowadays, so I’m not so sure. But I was nowhere near as, like, smart and eloquent as she is.”
By the numbers
• The Top 10 women’s seeds in singles remain alive for the first time at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2009. Four of those Wimbledon seeds, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki, were entered in this year’s Australian Open draw.
• At the start of Thursday’s play, there were five men’s Grand Slam singles champions remaining in the draw: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. Meanwhile, there were nine women’s Grand Slam singles champions still alive in the draw: Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko. By the end of the day, the total was eight after Ostapenko lost to Belinda Bencic.