Ostapenko Looking To Regain The Old Grand Slam Magic

WASHINGTON, September 24, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 8 Kiki Bertens posted a tour-best 17-5 win-loss record on clay last year and six of her 10 career WTA singles titles have come on red dirt. Until the No. 3 seed from the Netherlands faced 43rd-ranked Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia Wednesday afternoon in the Internationaux de Strasbourg WTA International clay court event in northeastern France, she had never competed at the Strasbourg tournament.

Unfortunately for Bertens, her debut was short-lived. It ended in her retirement in the third set due to an Achilles injury.

In a match characterized by plenty of deuce games and service breaks – there were 10 breaks of serve between the two competitors – the unseeded Ostapenko won the two-hour, second-round match after Bertens was forced to give up, six games into the third set with the match tied at a set apiece. It was the Dutchwoman’s first retirement of the year.

The final score favored Ostapenko 2-6, 6-4, 4-2 – she won the final four games – and it was the first time the Latvian had come back to win after losing the first set. Bertens is also the highest-ranked player Ostapenko has beaten this season.

After receiving a bye into the second round, Bertens was the final player in the 30-player draw to make her first appearance at the Strasbourg Tennis Club, following a 6-4, 6-4 second-round loss to Polona Hercog of Slovenia last week in Rome. Facing the 2017 French Open champion, also a first-time entrant at Strasbourg, Bertens and Ostapenko were no strangers to each other having met three previous times with Bertens leading their head-to-head 2-1.

All of the pre-match indicators seemed to favor Bertens, who won the opening set on the strength of two service breaks, in the third and seventh games. Then, Ostapenko mounted a comeback in the second set. Trailing 4-2, Ostapenko held and then broke to level the middle set at 4-all when Bertens double-faulted for the second time. Suddenly, with the momentum on her side, Ostapenko held to go ahead 5-4 as the match reached the 90-minute mark. She won the middle set after Bertens double-faulted, again, on set point.

Next, Bertens broke and held with her third service ace to take a quick 2-0 lead in the decisive set. Then, after Ostapenko held, she leveled the set with a backhand winner and held, again, to go ahead 3-2. She would never trail again. That’s because Ostapenko broke Bertens, once again, for a 4-2 lead at which time the call for a trainer was made. Moments later, Bertens retired – she was favoring a heavily-taped right ankle – and a somewhat surprised Ostapenko was declared the winner. She will move into Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

Despite winning by retirement, which she admitted during a Zoom chat with media afterward initially surprised her, Ostapenko was proud that she was still fighting to the end. “I started to play a bit better and smarter,” she said. “I’m glad that I won.

“I was not expecting [the retirement]. I had just broken her serve and [was] getting ready for my service game. Of course, it’s probably not the best way to finish a match, but still I’m glad I was fighting.”

Ostapenko said she’s pleased with the improvements she’s made this week in Strasbourg, which were reflected in victories over American Lauren Davis and Bertens. They followed a first-round loss to Magda Linette of Poland last week in Rome.

“I’m improving. Of course, at the beginning today I was rushing too much,” Ostapenko said. “Then, in the second set, I started to play better – a bit smarter – not going for every shot.”

Ostapenko mixed things up by tossing in some drop shots and kick serves, both which she thought worked pretty well. It’s all about thinking out on the court and playing more intelligent tennis.

“I think it’s important to play these kinds of matches, especially when you don’t play your best, and during the match you try to find your game and try to improve things,” she said.

While it’s never easy or comfortable to win a match by retirement, Ostapenko indicated that beating an opponent the caliber of Bertens will help her confidence, especially with Roland Garros less than a week away.

“I’ve always known I can be on this level [of beating higher-ranked players]. I’m slowly getting better,” Ostapenko said. “I just need more matches and confidence. I think I can be Top 5, where I used to be, and win another Grand Slam.”

Hibino lowest-ranked among quarterfinalists

Meanwhile, unheralded Nao Hibino of Japan reached her second quarterfinal of the season after beating Zarina Diyas, 7-5, 6-3, to begin play on Patrice Dominguez Court.  The 84th-ranked Hibino saved eight of 10 break points and hit 25 winners against her 76th-ranked Kazakh opponent to advance against Ostapenko, whom she is 0-2 in previous meetings. She’s the lowest-ranked player to reach the Strasbourg quarterfinal round.

Hibino and Diyas split their four previous meetings, with the most recent before Wednesday coming last year in Hiroshima, won by Hibino on a retirement. Hibino went on to capture her second career WTA singles title in that event. Diyas was attempting to reach her third Strasbourg quarterfinals, but Hibino proved to be the better player this time, winning 70 percent of her first-serve points. She also broke Diyas five times during their one hour and 47-minute match.

After failing to qualify for the Western & Southern Open and the Italian Open – and following a first-round loss to 10th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain in the US Open – Hibino has strung together consecutive wins over better-ranked opponents. On Monday, she snapped a five-match losing streak with her 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win over over 33rd-ranked Sloane Stephens of the United States.

Siniakova scores an upset of Alexandrova

Also advancing to the last eight is 62nd-ranked Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, who upset seventh seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 6-2, 6-4, in one hour and 20 minutes, to reach her first singles quarterfinal of the season.

Siniakova outpointed the 31st-ranked Alexandrova 69-53, hitting nine winners and taking advantage of 31 unforced errors by her opponent. She put away the victory on her third match-point opportunity. With her win, Siniakova leveled her career head-to-head with Alexandrova at 3-3.

“I’m feel really good on clay,” Siniakova said during her media chat via Zoom. “I played some good matches in Rome, I think; I’m really happy I’ve won two matches in a row here [in Strasbourg]; they were tough matches. I feel good about it. 

“Ekaterina is a big hitter; she plays tough. I was trying to be so good on every point today. I think I did really good. She was missing a lot in the beginning. I tried to stay on my game and I think I did it.”

Asked if she thought her game is headed in the right direction with Roland Garros less than a week away, Siniakova, said, “I hope so. I feel confident on clay now. Hopefully, I can continue that next week.”

Looking ahead, the 24-year-old Czech who has been ranked as high as No. 31, said, “I’m expecting another big hitter [in Sabalenka]. I’m expecting another tough match.”

Sabalenka finds her rhythm in time

Rounding out the quarterfinal round field is No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, who avoided a big upset in the early going of her match against 59th-ranked Anna Blinkova of Russia. After dropping the first set, the World No. 12 Sabalenka rebounded to win, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, in one hour and 55 minutes that delighted the crowd.

Blinkova, who reached the round of 16 last week in Rome after gaining a main draw berth through qualifying, dominated early and jumped out to a 4-0 lead. She took advantage of a couple of service breaks against Sabalenka en route to grabbing the opening set. However, once the determined Sabalenka found her rhythm, she won three of the final four games in the middle set that sent the match to a decider.

It was in the final set that Sabalenka began to distance herself from her unseeded opponent. She broke Blinkova early for a 2-1 lead, then broke her, again, to go ahead 5-2. Sabalenka closed out the second-round match with a demonstrative forehand winner to remain in the chase for a second WTA title of the year following her hard-court triumph in Doha back in February.

“After the first set, I’m proud that I found my game,” said Sabalenka during a virtual chat with media. “I fought through everything. I found my rhythm. [Anna] pushed me a lot. I’m happy that I could handle it.”

When Tennis TourTalk asked Sabalenka what she learned about herself on the court, both as a player and as a competitor, she said: “I learned that even if everything isn’t going in my direction, I can still handle it, still can find my way back. This match, I found I just needed to slow down and stay in the rallies as long as I can. I found my shots and found my game. I’m proud of myself.”

Sabalenka hit 27 winners compared to 18 for Blinkova, and while she committed more unforced errors than her opponent, 32 to 27, most came during the forgettable first set. She won 70 percent of her first-serve points and saved three of the seven break points she faced. Sabalenka broke Blinkova four times in six opportunities and outpointed the Russian 82-81.

Afterward, Sabalenka gave credit to the fans, who supported her throughout the match. “They helped me a lot. I’m happy to see [the fans] here in Strasbourg. It’s really amazing to see people watching us supporting tennis,” she said.

Sabalenka, who is 2-0 on clay after being away from the surface for more than a year, has now won five of eight since the WTA relaunch last month. Her win over Blinkova improved her season-long win-loss record to 17-8. Looking ahead to Thursday’s quarterfinal against Siniakova, Sabalenka said: “It’s going to be another tough match, but I’m ready for it, ready for the big fight.”

Top seeds in doubles advance to semifinals

No. 1 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands advanced to the doubles semifinals with a 6-2, 6-3 win over unseeded Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany and Katarina Srebotnik from Slovenia. All of the top four seeds remain in contention for the championship.

What they’re saying in Strasbourg

• Katerina Siniakova is part of tremendous group of Czech women ranked in the Top 100. When Tennis TourTalk asked Siniakova about her experience of playing against other Czech players in Prague, during the summer lockdown of the WTA tour, she said, “It was good. It’s so unbelievable that we have so many players in the Top 100.

Currently, there are eight Czech women in the Top 100 and 10 in the Top 150: 4. Karolina Pliskova, 11. Petra Kvitova, 19. Marketa Vondrousova, 26. Karolina Muchova, 37. Barbora Strycova, 46. Marie Bouzkova, 62. Katerina Siniakova, 69. Kristyna Pliskova, 117. Barbora Krejcikova and 121. Tereza Martincova.

“When we didn’t have the tour on, we had some good matches and it was nice to play some great tennis,” said Siniakova, who is a member of the Czech Republic’s Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) team. “I’m playing against No. 6 in the world [current World No. 11 Petra Kvitova] and I’m No. 8 [now No. 7] in my country. So, it was good. I didn’t feel like I stopped [playing tennis] because we played so many matches.”

• Aryna Sabalenka, who before the interruption of the 2020 season won the champion’s trophy in Doha and reached three quarterfinals, was asked about her mindset during the five-month shutdown of pro tennis due to the coronavirus pandemic and what her expectations were for Strasbourg. She said: “I was really sad about the situation; I couldn’t believe it. … It was tough to not play for five months. I practiced more than I ever remember. … It was a new experience for me. I tried to handle it but I learned a lot [about myself.] Coming back, I was ready for the work, ready for the fight. I didn’t have any expectations [here]. I just came here to fight for every point and go as far as I can and win as much as I can. … I’m just trying to enjoy my time on the court and play my best.”

Helping hands at Strasbourg

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