Muchova Wins Battle Of Karolinas In Melbourne

Karolina Muchova (photo: Rob Prezioso/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 13, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Watch World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova and 25th seed Karolina Muchova long enough and you’ll realize this: There are absolutely no secrets between the two Czech players, who faced off at the Australian Open before no spectators on Rod Laver Arena Saturday afternoon in a third-round battle of the Czech Karolinas.

Not only were the two Karolinas practice partners for the 14 days of quarantine after they arrived in Melbourne last month, but Muchova is coached by Pliskova’s former coach David Kotyza.

During her press conference after her second-round victory over Danielle Collins earlier this week, Pliskova was asked whether it would be an advantage or disadvantage that they practiced so often together.

“In the end, I think it doesn’t matter because we have to play each other anyway,” said Pliskova prior to their third-round match. “I just have to find a way. Of course, we know each other so much. Even if we would not practice those two weeks in quarantine, we practice a lot in [the] Czech [Republic]. We’re actually quite good friends.

“I think it’s going to be at least like good atmosphere, there is not really the tension that we hate each other. I think it can be good match.”

The 27th-ranked Muchova had other ideas and she upset the World No. 6 Pliskova, 7-5, 7-5, in one hour and 54 minutes for her sixth victory of the season and first against a Top-10 opponent. Muchova won the final seven games of the match and finished with 22 winners. She pumped her right fist in the air and flashed a big grin toward her box after garnering her third victory this week in the Aussie fortnight.

“Both of us, we were very nervous I would say,” said Muchova during her press conference after the match. “Lucky to get through, to hold the end of the first set. Second set was a bit slower from my side. It was still just [a] few points difference. … I’m happy that I turned that second set around and made it.”

In their two previous encounters, Pliskova won their 2019 Australian Open first-round match while Muchova triumphed last year in a fourth-round clash at Wimbledon, winning 13-11 in the third set. This time, Muchova broke Pliskova three times to capture the first set 7-5. Soon, Pliskova proceeded to smash her racquet in the player tunnel after being escorted off the court for a bathroom break. She was handed a code violation for racquet abuse upon her return, which seemed to fire her up.

Pliskova rebounded in the second set and turned the match around with an early break in the second game for a 3-0 lead. Then, after Pliskova gained a double-break (4-0) lead and consolidated the break for 5-0, Muchova wasn’t quite ready to concede the set.

“Of course, she’s a dangerous player,” Pliskova said earlier this week. “She can play well. She has a different style.”

Muchova came roaring back to win the next four games to climb back on serve. Then, she saved two set points on her serve for 5-all, and broke to go ahead. Finally, Muchova closed out the match on her serve after hitting a backhand winner on her second match-point opportunity.

“We know each other pretty well,” Muchova told Tennis TourTalk. “We practice a lot in Czech. We knew each other even before those two weeks. But definitely, it was a nice two weeks of practicing. We had good practices, good preparation together.”

Muchova added: “I think [the self-belief] came with the work and matches. It’s a long way. I had a good run at Wimbledon, good run at the US Open and it definitely gave me confidence that I can play these players. It’s everything about believing in yourself.”

Asked what she thought was the difference on Saturday, Pliskova, who committed 40 unforced errors said, “I was disappointed because I thought I had plenty chances. Unfortunately, I was just not able to play well at the important moments.” Pliskova’s win-loss record dropped to 4-3.

“I’m really happy it worked out this year and I’m in the second week. It’s always nice to be in the second week of the Grand Slam,” said Muchova.

Next, Muchova will face No. 18 seed Elise Mertens. The Belgian No. 1 beat No. 11 seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-2, 6-1, in just 62 minutes, thanks to hitting seven aces and 22 winners.

Svitolina clears a path into second week

No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina cleared a nice path to the second week by taking out Coco Gauff in the second round. On Saturday, she faced No. 26 seed Yulia Putintseva in their seventh career meeting. Svitolina came into the third-round clash having won the last five. She needed just an hour and 23 minutes to make it six in a row with an easy 6-4, 6-0 victory, in which Putintseva double faulted on match point.

“I think first time we played when we were like 10 or 12 or something like that. It’s going to be another big battle,” Svitolina said earlier this week. “It’s never easy when you are playing someone who you know for so many years. She’s still a great fighter. She was screaming, she was all the time really pumped, as she is now, as well.”

After Svitolina won the opening set 6-4, she broke away to a 3-0 advantage to start the second. Then, the lead was increased to 4-0 as Putintseva double faulted on game point. Immediately, Svitolina consolidated the break to take a commanding 5-0 lead with the finish line in focus. Finally, she won a bagel set to end it after Putintseva committed her third double fault on the final point of the match.

Svitolina finished with 18 winners and was aided by Putintseva’s 32 unforced errors. She’s 3-0 and headed for the round of 16.

The World No. 5 from Ukraine has beaten three quality opponents to start the first major – Marie Bouzkova, Gauff and Putintseva. When Svitolina was asked by Tennis TourTalk if she’s pleased with her results and the direction of her game – she’s 8-2 to start 2021 – she said: “Definitely, I’m pleased with the performance I showed here. I had some good matches, as well, in Abu Dhabi. Physically-wise I’m feeling strong, I’m feeling comfortable with my physique.

“For sure they haven’t been easy matches. That’s what I’ve been looking to start against good opponents. I think I had some good matches. For now, everything goes good. I’m adjusting very good to the situations that I’ve been put in. That’s a good sign.

“But the tournament is still in the middle, so there’s lots of matches, there’s lots of challenges ahead of me. I’m trying just to put my head down and to work through every situation, every game, just to break down to the smallest details and try to work with every situation that comes my way.”

Next, Svitolina will face unseeded Jessica Pegula of the United States, whom she beat last month in Abu Dhabi in straight sets. As Svitolina was finishing her virtual press conference, the 64th-ranked American finished off No. 50 Kristina Mladenovic of France, 6-2, 6-1 in 65 minutes. Pegula hit 21 winners to just 13 unforced errors and outpointed Mladenovic 59-33. She hasn’t dropped any sets through the first three rounds.

In an interview with Tennis Channel, Pegula attributed her success to her level of confidence, “being aggressive and attacking with my forehand, putting pressure on my opponents.

“I’m playing my return games well; my serve games are smart. Everything is clicking right now,” she said.

“I’m switched my mind set this year from winning a round at a slam to ‘why can’t I go deep in a slam?’ I’m setting my goals higher. When you keep plugging away, things will come together.”

Barty moves into second week

With no crowd cheering and her left thigh strapped with tape, World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty still managed defeated No. 29 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 6-4, 6-3 to begin the evening session on silent Rod Laver Arena. The Aussie is safely through to the fourth round of the Australian Open for a third straight year.

Afterward, Barty described playing in an empty Rod Laver Arena as “very strange.” She said: It changes the sound of the court a little bit. Something I’ve never experienced before ever in my life, so it’s very strange.

“We had to have a bit of a chat about it with my team, obviously, just to prepare and try to be ready for anything. But I didn’t want it to affect the way I played tonight. I didn’t want it to affect how i went about my business.”

Barty finished her 80-minute victory with four aces and 14 winners. She converted five of 17 break points and caused Alexandrova to commit 30 unforced errors.

Next, Barty faces big-hitting Shelby Rogers, one of four American women to reach the fourth round along with Pegula, Serena Williams and Jennifer Brady. Rogers, who reached last year’s US Open quarterfinals, beat Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, 6-4, 6-3, in one hour and 23 minutes. Rogers hit 20 winners and converted four break points against the the 21st-seeded Kontaveit.

Vekic ends Kanepi’s Aussie run

No. 28 seed Donna Vekic of Croatia rallied from 7-5, 3-0 down to pull out a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory over No. 65 Kaia Kanepi of Estonia to move into the second week at her ninth Australian Open. Vekic has now reached the round of 16 in all four Grand Slams. She hit 38 winners during the two hour and 36-minute match on Margaret Court Arena. The loss ended Kanepi’s fantastic Aussie run at 6-2, in which she reached the Gippsland Trophy final and earlier this week upset took out defending champion Sofia Kenin in straight sets.

“It was definitely a difficult match from the beginning to the end,” said Vekic. “I had to fight for every point. I was even a match point down and I thought I was really brave in some moments. So, the right really paid off in the end. …

“I’ve never played the second week in Australia, so I think this is my worst slam when it comes to results. I’m surprised I did it this year with the courts being so fast. I don’t like this trend of Grand Slams making their courts faster and faster, but maybe I’m going to start liking from now on.”

Next, Vekic will take on No. 24 seed Jennifer Brady, who defeated 104th-ranked Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan, 6-1, 6-3, in one hour and 28 minutes. Brady hit 23 winners and took advantage of her opponent’s 33 unforced errors. Worth noting, at 6-1, 4-3, the eighth game turned out to be a memorable one consisting of nine deuces and lasting more than 17 minutes.

“I think sometimes the score doesn’t really reflect the toughness of the match,” Brady said during her post-match press conference. “I think I was feeling pretty good in the first set. Then, towards the end of the second set … I was getting a little bit nervous. [Kaja] started playing a little bit more aggressive, started making me play a little bit more. I was happy I was able to hold in the 4-3 game to make it 5-3, then finish it out.”

Brady is the last of the strict quarantine players left in the draw. As she looks ahead to her next match against Vekic, she said, “To be playing here in the fourth round, I’m super excited. I think it will be a really good match. … I’m sure my coach Michael (Geserer) will come up with some good tactics and we’ll discuss a game plan.”

No. 1 doubles seeds Hsieh/Strycova lose

Last year’s Australian Open doubles finalists, top-seeded Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic were upset by Darija Jurak of Croatia and Nina Stojanovic from Serbia, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5, in two hours and 20 minutes. Hsieh remains alive in the singles draw.

Saturday’s results

Sunday’s order of play

Phillip Island Trophy begins

The first day of the WTA 250-series Phillip Island Trophy, a 56-player draw comprised of a field of first and second-round losers from the Australian Open, began Saturday at Melbourne Park and continues through Feb. 19. The top four seeds are World No. 4 Sofia Kenin, No. 9 Bianca Andreescu, No. 15 Johanna Konta and No. 19 Petra Martic.

Among Saturday’s winners moving into the second round were Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, who beat Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, 6-7 (6), 6-1, 7-6 (4); Daria Kasatkina of Russia, who defeated Katie Boulter of Great Britain, 6-4, 6-2, and Misaki Doi of Japan, a 7-5, 6-3 winner over No. 10 seed Caroline Garcia from France.