No Roman Holiday: Every Match Is A Battle For Muguruza

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

In a battle between Garbiñe Muguruza and Victoria Azarenka, both two-time Grand Slam champions and former World No. 1 players, something had to give when they faced each other during Saturday’s quarterfinal round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.

While Azarenka had advanced past Muguruza twice in their past three meetings – and they have a past history in Rome, where Azarenka won their round of 16 match last year after Muguruza retired due to a left thigh injury – this time it was Muguruza, who came through with a positive outcome. The ninth-seeded Spaniard scored a 3-6 6-3, 6-4 win over the unseeded and 14th-ranked Azarenka in two hours and 19 minutes to reach her third Italian Open semifinal. It was anything but a Roman holiday.

The 17th-ranked Muguruza, twice (2016, 2017) a semifinalist in Rome, and Azarenka, who came in having won 14 of her past 15 matches – including her first title since 2016 at the Western & Southern Open last month as well as reaching her fifth Grand Slam final last week at the US Open – battled back and forth looking for an edge. However, both competitors had trouble holding their serve – there were 13 service breaks between them – and that’s what made things interesting.

After splitting the first two sets, Muguruza strung together a ground stroke winner, a volley winner and two unreturnable serves against Azarenka to go ahead 3-1. Then, at 4-all, Muguruza broke her opponent for the final time in the match at love, which enabled her to serve out the victory. Muguruza won on her third match-point opportunity after Azarenka netted a weak backhand return.

“I think it was a tough match. I knew it was going to be a tough match,” said Muguruza during her virtual press conference. Then, in giving props to Azarenka, she said: “She’s a good player, she’s playing good. She’s with a lot of confidence.

“I knew it was going to be a tough battle. I was ready for it. I stood behind her and waiting for my opportunities. She was playing great at the beginning. She took the first set. I kept myself together and said, ‘Okay, let’s start another battle in the second set.’ …

“I’m happy I played the right shots and I stood aggressive. I went for the match the whole time. Never felt down. I went for the match.”

Next, Muguruza will face top seed Simona Halep on Sunday.

“It’s a semifinal. It’s what I expect these types of players to face,” Muguruza said. “It’s always a battle, again. She’s playing good. She’s a good clay court player.

“I’m just looking forward to another battle, because from now on, every match is a battle. Especially now you’re facing one of the best players. I’m excited. I’m excited to be a part of this.”

Meanwhile, Halep moved into the semifinal round after her opponent, Yulia Putintseva, retired due to a lower back injury after just 47 minutes in the opening match on Centrale. Halep was ahead 6-2, 2-0.

With her 12th straight win, Halep has reached the Rome semifinals five times (2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020). She was effective in winning many points with down-the-line strikes as well as with defending against Putintseva’s drop shots.

“I felt really good on the court, more than the previous matches,” said Halep, who improved her 2020 win-loss record to 18-2 with her victory Saturday. “It’s not easy to play Yulia all of the time. … She has a very good drop shot. … You have to be very focused. I didn’t miss much. I opened the court well. It was maybe the best [for me] of the tournament.”

When Halep, a past champion of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, was asked if winning Rome was an important goal, she said, “Now, it’s the most important goal. I really enjoy playing this tournament here and I’ve made the semifinals five times. I love Rome, I love Italy. I feel really good when I play here in Italy.”

In the bottom half of the draw, fourth seed Elina Svitolina came into her quarterfinal match against 12th seed Marketa Vondrousova with a 3-0 head-to-head advantage. Svitolina had won the Rome title twice (2017, 2018) and brought a 13-4 win-loss record into Saturday’s tussle. However, Vondrousova secured her first Top 10 win in more than a year when she beat Svitolina convincingly, 6-3, 6-0, needing one hour and 20 minutes to triumph on Pietrangeli. The win lifts Vondrousova into her first semifinal since reaching that plateau in last year’s French Open.

While Vondrousova saved all nine break points she faced against Svitolina – six of them coming in her first two service games of the quarterfinal match – she broke the Ukrainian four times and amassed 25 winners to just nine for her opponent. Svitolina also committed 26 unforced errors.

“I played an amazing match today; I didn’t expect it but I’m happy to be through,” said Vondrousova, whose was extended to a lengthy three-set round of 16 match against Polona Hercog that didn’t end until after midnight Friday night. “I hit many drop shots and didn’t make many errors. I think I just played better today [than Elena.].”

Finally, in a featured evening match on Centrale, defending champion and World No. 4 Karolina Pliskova met Elise Mertens for the second time. Coming in, Pliskova had quietly gone about her business by winning back-to-back matches for the first time since the Australian Open. She brought a seven match Rome winning streak into her match against Mertens, who had reached the quarterfinals or better in her last four tournaments – Prague, Western & Southern Open, US Open and Rome. This time, it was Pliskova who rallied for victory after splitting sets. She won 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 to advance against Vondrousova.

“I think I played a great match. Even the second set I think there was some good moments,” Pliskova said in her post-match virtual press conference. “But just started way too strong in the third, and I think definitely was maybe one of the best matches of course of this season, but it’s not so difficult because there was not many matches. 

“I felt great. Especially the first set I think was maybe one of my best sets that I have played on clay ever.”

On Sunday, Halep will oppose Muguruza in the first semifinal at noon on Centrale. The second semifinal pitting Vondrousova against Pliskova will take place on Centrale not before 4 p.m.

Top seeds into Rome doubles final

World No. 1s and top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova reached the Rome final with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Lexington champions Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani, 7-5, 6-4. It is the fifth final of the season for Hsieh and Strycova. In Sunday’s championship match, they will face unseeded Anna-Lena Friedsam and Raluca Olaru. The German-Romanian pair defeated Japan’s seventh seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, 3-6, 6-2, 10-4.

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Two for the record books

• When Casper Ruud rallied to beat fourth seed Matteo Berrettini, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, he became the first Norwegian to advance to an ATP Masters 1000 semifinal. Ruud won the last four points in the tiebreak to win the two-hour and 58-minute battle. Ruud’s father, Christian, reached the quarterfinals of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters in 1997.

• After nine straight losses to 9-time Italian Open champion Rafael Nadal, Diego Schwartzman finally defeated the Spaniard, 6-2, 7-5, Saturday night to advance to his second straight Rome semifinal. It should be noted that this was the seventh time Nadal has lost at Rome. He went on to win Roland Garros four times after his first six Italian Open losses.

Svitolina, Bertens top seeds at Strasbourg

World No. 6 Elina Svitolina and World No. 8 Kiki Bertens headline the 30-player singles draw at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, which begins today in Strasbourg, France. It is the final clay tuneup before the French Open, which begins Sept. 27 in Paris.

Original top seed, World No. 4 Karolina Pliskova, withdrew because she’s still competing in Rome. Her place in the top spot in draw was taken by Bertens.

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