Halep, Pliskova Advance To Rome Quarterfinals

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Both top seed Simona Halep and No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, the defending champion, advanced to the quarterfinals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome on Friday. Each beat their respective opponents in straight sets and without having to exert tremendous effort. On a hot, 90-degree (Fahrenheit) day in the Italian capital city, that meant a lot. The balls moved fast on the Foro Italico red clay and both Halep and Pliskova did their best to control the pace and tempo of their round of 16 matches.

On Centrale, the two-time Rome finalist Halep defeated No. 29 Dayana Yastremska, 7-5, 6-4, for her 11th straight win going back to Dubai before the tour’s five-month hiatus. Halep is looking to win her third consecutive tournament following Dubai and Prague.

Friday’s meeting was the Romanian’s first time to face Yastremska and she won 69 percent of her service points and counter-punched her way to her fifth Rome quarterfinal. Halep broke the Ukranian’s serve four times in 10 tries and outpointed Yastremska 74-58.

“I’m very pleased with the way I moved; my body feels good and physically I’m really good,” Halep said during her virtual press conference. “I served really well. I won some easy games on my serve. Big picture, I think it was a great match. It gives me confidence that even in these conditions that I could win in two sets.”

Although the French Open is just over a week away, Halep said her main focus for now is Rome. “Every week is important. Every match I play I have to be 100 percent,” she said. So, I’m doing that here as well. I’m a little bit nervous. … All of the opponents are tough and the level is very high. I have no expectations. … I have the game to win this tournament.” 

Meanwhile, Pliskova quickly disposed of 65th-ranked qualifier Anna Blinkova, 6-4, 6-3, on Pietrangeli, on the strength of 24 winners and an 81-percent efficiency winning points on her first serve. It was Pliskova’s first back-to-back wins since the Australian Open.

In Saturday’s quarterfinals, Halep will oppose 30th-ranked Yulia Putintseva, who upset No. 10 seed Elena Rybakina, 4-6, 7-6 (3) 6-2, in an all-Kazakh matchup. Pliskova will oppose 11th seed Elise Mertens, who defeated qualifier Danka Kovinic, 6-4, 6-4, by winning 72 percent of her first-serve points while outpointing her opponent 61-56.

In other round of 16 matches:

• Two-time Rome titlist (2017, 2018) and fourth seed Elina Svitolina beat No. 38 Svetlana Kuznetsova, twice a Rome finalist, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in one hour and 54 minutes The No. 4 seed Svitolina, who is in search of her fifth WTA clay-court singles title, broke Kuznetsova five times and outpointed her 81-74. She improved her lifetime head-to-head against the Russian to 4-1.

“Definitely very happy with the game tonight,” Svitolina said. “It was a big fight. I was expecting the big battle, as always from [Kuznetsova]. She’s a great fighter, and she never gives you easy matches.”

Next, Svitolina will oppose 12th seed Marketa Vondrousova, who took out unseeded and 50th-ranked Polona Hercog, 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (5) in two hours and 23 minutes on Centrale. Hercog was unable to capitalize on her upset of No. 5 seed Kiki Bertens from a day earlier.

• In a battle of seeded players, No 9 Garbiñe Muguruza bested No. 7 Johanna Konta, 6-4, 6-1, in 82 minutes for her third victory in five meetings against the Briton. During the one hour and 22-minute match on Pietrangeli, Muguruza won 82 percent of her first-serve points, saved all three break points she faced, broke Konta’s serve three times and won on points 62-42. It lifted her into her fifth quarterfinal of the 2020 season.

Muguruza (20-6) is now a win away from becoming a three-time Rome semifinalist after achieving that plateau in 2016 and 2017. Konta (8-8), who reached the 2019 Rome finals, was facing her first Top 20-ranked opponent of the season.

Next Muguruza will oppose unseeded Victoria Azarenka, who has won 14 of 15 matches since the WTA tour re-launch last month including her first title since 2016 at the Western & Southern Open. The 14th-ranked Azarenka, who reached the finals of the US Open last weekend, won on a retirement after qualifier Daria Kasatkina injured her right ankle in a fall near the net during the second point of their first-set tiebreak. It followed one hour and 16 minutes of play on the Grand Stand Arena.

In an emotional scene, Azarenka showed an act of extraordinary sportsmanship as she immediately came over to Kasatkina’s side of the net to check on her fallen opponent – even bringing a bag of ice for treatment and helping her take her shoe off while she waited for a trainer to arrive on court to administer medical treatment. Then, Azarenka shared a caring conversation with Kasatkina at the Russian’s bench following her retirement announcement.

“I’m really sad for Daria because we were play such great tennis,” said Azarenka during her virtual post-match press conference. “I felt it was such a great fight. She’s such a talented player that I felt like is always on the verge of kind of that breakthrough where she’s going to pick it up. I felt like this was maybe closer to being her moment. So, it’s very unfortunate that she has an injury.

“I hope that this moment is going to be a turnaround for her. I know it’s an adversity, but I hope she takes the best out of this situation and pushes forward. I feel like she can. I wish her that. I hope she’s able to recover before the French Open.”

When asked about the exchange the two competitors and friends shared at Kasatkina’s bench, in which the injured Russian shook Azarenka’s hand and pulled her back, Azarenka said:

“It’s difficult to find the words when you have emotions. I know how sad she was. And I could see that, you know, she worked really, really hard … and she was very gracious that my, kind of, ‘comeback’ has inspired her and I just told her to keep going. She’s a strong girl and she has a big personality, so I think she’ll be fine.”

Italian government to allow up to 1,000 for Rome semifinals and finals

According to reporting by Simon Cambers of Tennis Majors, the Italian government Friday announced that up to 1,000 fans will be allowed into Foro Italico for the Italian Open semifinals and finals taking place on Sunday and next Monday.

Originally, due to the coronavirus, it was deemed too dangerous to allow fans to attend the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. The news of the Italian government’s change of heart was originally released on the Italian news wire Ansa. It came a day after the French government announced a reduction in fans able to attend the French Open at Roland Garros later this month.

“It would be nice to have some fans in the stands,” said Simona Halep during her virtual press conference Friday after her round of 16 win over Dayana Yastremska. “Good energy for us.”

Muguruza playing every match like it’s the last one

Garbiñe Muguruza didn’t play any matches or exhibition tournaments during the five-month pandemic shutdown of the WTA Tour. Instead, she spent the hiatus at her home in Geneva, Switzerland, working on fitness and training.

Looking back, the 17th-ranked Spaniard wasn’t ready to stop playing in March when the coronavirus struck. I think it was bad timing. When you are playing well, you don’t want to stop for seven months, that’s for sure,” she said during one of her virtual press conferences this week in Rome. “I felt I was in a good momentum and playing well in many tournaments. Missing tennis was tough, but I got the best out of [the hiatus]. I’m happy to be back.

“I think that break also was nice, especially physically. I don’t remember such a long time without feeling pain or being tired. I appreciated it.”

When Muguruza resurfaced, it was earlier this month at the US Open, where she defeated Nao Hibino of Japan in the first round, 6-4, 6-4, then prompt was bounced in the second round by Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, 7-5, 6-3.

Now, Muguruza has strung together wins over Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff and Johanna Konta to reach Saturday’s quarterfinal round against Victoria Azarenka.

“I’m hoping to leave Rome with a trophy or playing as many matches as possible,” Muguruza said. “I don’t have many expectations after not playing for such a long time – and [my] US Open was short. So, just being here and enjoying it as much as I can – I know there is no crowds so it’s a little bit difficult – I love it here. The Italian fans are so loud and you can feel them. 

“I’m humble on the court and trying to play every match like it’s the last one.”

Sofia Kenin – It was just one of those days

On Wednesday evening in Rome, Sofia Kenin lost 6-0, 6-0 to Victoria Azarenka. Afterward, she posted on social media:

Andy Murray speaks out on equality and diversity in tennis

In an interview published this week by Pride Life, the largest LGBTQ website and magazine in the United Kingdom, Great Britain’s Andy Murray spoke on the issues of equality and diversity in tennis. He said:  “I think as a sport you just have to be as inclusive as possible. We need to create a culture where everyone’s voice is heard.”

From one tennis icon to another

Serena Williams offered her congratulations to Hall of Famer Billie Jean King on the occasion of the Fed Cup being renamed in King’s honor on Thursday.

Iga Swiatek inspired by Billie Jean King

Polish rising star Iga Swiatek, just 19, has been inspired by Billie Jean King. She’s such an iconic player, she’s changed women’s tennis.”

What they’re saying

Simona Halep was asked during her virtual press conference on Friday about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. She said: “I don’t think about great players who are not coming. I’m focused just on myself. Every match will be a challenge.”

• Earlier this week, rising Italian star Jannik Sinner, 19, was asked in La Gazetta dello Sport about working out with Rafael Nadal. He said, “When you’re lucky enough to hit with such a champion, you can only learn. What strikes me every time is the intensity, he puts into it, and his attention to detail. Not a ball is wasted.”

What they’re sharing on social media