Pliskova Aces Way Into Stuttgart Quarterfinals

Karolina Pliskova (photo: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix)

STUTTGART/WASHINGTON, April 22, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The last time that Karolina Pliskova beat Jelena Ostapenko in a three-set match, it also happened at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, and the Czech star went on to win the prestigious European indoor red clay tournament in 2018.

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon in Porsche Arena and the same two competitors began the fourth day of the main draw competition with five quarterfinal berths on the line.

For just the second time this year, Pliskova achieved consecutive match wins as she beat the No. 52 Ostapenko 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 23 minutes. Unleashing an arsenal of 21 service aces, which tied a career best for the World No. 6, it marked the fourth time that Pliskova has eclipsed 20 aces in a single match. Her Thursday tally, which included 10 in the final set alone, gives her 88 for the season, which is third best on tour.

“I did many things today much better than I did yesterday,” Pliskova told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual press conference after beating Ostapenko. “So, that’s why I’m proud of myself that I’m able, you know, to change that performance in a day, and I felt I played actually really good tennis today.

“For some reason, [Jelena] likes to play me; she’s always playing really good tennis against me. It was a great level and I thought I was serving extremely well today for all the match. It gave me some extra strength, for sure, to win this kind of match.”

The second-round victory against the Latvian No. 2 was just the first time this season that Pliskova has won after losing the first set, and it ended a two-match losing streak against the 2017 French Open champion. Pliskova improved to 3-2 lifetime against Ostapenko and 6-1 against opponents outside of the Top 50.

“I had not many chances but I had chances to win if I was serving better,” Ostapenko said during her virtual press conference. “Karolina was serving really well today. She served so many aces … like today she served 70 percent better than all the other matches. Yes, it was tough for me to break her serve. Still, the match was really close, really close. I think a couple of points here and there, if I won them, the match could go the other way.”

Now, it’s no rest for Pliskova as she will move into Friday’s quarterfinals against World No. 1 and Stuttgart top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia. It’s just the second quarterfinal-round appearance this season for Pliskova, who has struggled to achieve consistency with her game.

Thursday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix results

Friday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix order of play

Around the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix

• No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka won many of the biggest points in the closest games of her second-round match against 123rd-ranked qualifier Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany. In the end, it was the World No. 7 from Belarus who won 6-4, 6-2 in one hour and 19 minutes to move into the quarterfinal round against Anett Kontaveit of Estonia.

In her first meeting against the German, Sabalenka capped her win with a powerful backhand winner, her 34th winner of the afternoon. It dropped Friedsam’s record against Top 10 competition to 1-11, while Sabalenka improved to 16-5 overall and 2-0 on clay this season. She’s yet to drop a set in her first two matches of the WTA 500-series tournament.

“I wouldn’t say these two matches I’m playing really well,” Sabalenka told Tennis TourTalk during a virtual interview after her win. “I’m kind of getting these wins through my work. It’s tricky matches the first and the second one and I’m just trying to do my best in each match. I’m just happy to get these wins.”

Sabalenka hit five aces and broke Friedsam four times in four tries. Friedsam, who reached the second round with an earlier win over Norwegian qualifier Ulrikke Eikeri, hit 24 winners and committed just 11 unforced errors. However, she was able to convert only one of seven break-point chances and Sabalenka outpointed her 64-53 to move on, in search of her first clay-court title to go with the nine she’s won on hard courts.

“I actually like to play on the clay courts,” Sabalenka said. “I’m excited going into the clay court season. Yes, I’m enjoying playing on the clay.”

• World No. 3 Simona Halep gave a masterclass performance in her 2021 clay-court debut Thursday evening. The No. 2 seed from Romania beat World No. 20 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-3, in just 56 minutes, by playing very motivated tennis. It was just her first career win against the 2019 French Open finalist coming after two previous losses.

Focused and determined, Halep hit three aces and 22 winners overall to just 13 unforced errors and faced no break points. She lost just eight points on her serve the entire match – only one on her second serve. Meanwhile, Vondrousova, whose serve was broken four times, managed just eight winners while committing 16 unforced errors. Halep outpointed Vondrousova 54-30.

I’m happy to be back on clay and also at this tournament,” Halep told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual gathering with international media. “It’s a nice tournament. The conditions here are great, and starting the clay-court season makes me very happy and motivated – extra motivated actually. My mind was strong enough just to give focus on what I have to play. So, I did it great and today it was a great match.”

Next, Halep will play No. 34 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia in Friday’s quarterfinals. The unseeded, calm Alexandrova took out World No. 12 and eighth seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-1, 7-5, in one hour and 21 minutes, by firing 12 aces and hitting 34 winners overall to reach her first clay quarterfinal. She broke Bencic’s serve four times – twice in each set. Bencic committed 20 unforced errors and Alexandrova was quick to take advantage of many of them. It was the Russian’s third Top 20 win this season. She’s the lowest-ranked of the eight Stuttgart quarterfinalists.

“I knew it would be a tough match for me,” Alexandrova said during her on-court interview following her victory. “Reaching the quarterfinals – and playing against the best players – here is amazing. I didn’t expect that at the start of the tournament.”

Elina Svitolina reached the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix quarterfinals for the second time with her seventh straight victory over Angelique Kerber and eighth win overall. Thursday evening, the World No. 5 from Ukraine won 7-6 (4), 6-3 in one hour and 34 minutes. She’s now beaten the German No. 1, currently ranked 26th, in 11 straight sets.

Svitolina hit four aces and 26 winners, broke Kerber three times in eight tries and outpointed her opponent 77-67. Kerber hit 25 winners to 26 unforced errors, converted two of three break-point chances and was outpointed by Svitolina 77-67.

“It was a challenge to start with a match against Angie,” Svitolina said during an on-court interview after her win. “She played really well. It was a really tough match. We always have really tough battles. I wasn’t expecting nothing more than that.”

Svitolina credited winning the first-set tie break with putting herself in the right frame of mind. “For sure, it was truly important for me. I was looking through to get the chance to win the set. I was fighting. It really helped me to get through the first set,” she said.

“It’s always a big battle against [Angie]. We’ve played many, many times. … Angie brings the best out of me. I’m really happy I got through in two sets.”

Next, Svitolina, who has won nine of her last 10 matches on clay, will face World No. 10 and seventh seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic in Friday’s quarterfinal round. Svitolina beat Kvitova 2-6, 7-5, 7-5 in the fourth round of the Miami Open on a hard-court surface last month. Kvitova leads their career head-to-head 7-3.

Krawczyk/Mattek-Sands advance to doubles semifinals

No. 1 doubles seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, both from the United States, advanced to the semifinal round with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Sharon Fichman of Canada and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico, in 72 minutes. Krawczyk and Mattek-Sands, who are both veteran doubles specialists but playing together for the first time, outpointed their opponents 53-42 to improve their record to 2-0.

Also, doubles super team Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Jennifer Brady of the United States, both Top 20 singles stars, upset the No. 2 seeds Xu Yifan and Zhang Shuai, both of China, 6-4, 6-3, in 70 minutes to reach the semifinal round. The winners improved their season win-loss record to 5-2 by converting four of seven break-point opportunities and outpointing their opponents 57-48.

Finally, German pair Mona Barthel and Anna-Lena Friedsam advanced to the quarterfinal round with a 7-5, 6-0 win over Oksana Kalashnikova of Georgia and Alla Kudryavtseva of Russia. Next, they will play Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine and Raluca Olaru of Romania on Friday.

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty on gaining comfort playing on red clay: “I think it’s a natural progression. I think each tournament on clay probably gradually gets more and more similar to Roland Garros, I think, as you kind of go through. Here in Stuttgart, it’s something I’ve never played on before. I’ve never played on indoor clay. It is a bit different, it’s pretty quick here and you get kind of rewarded for kind of serving first strike, which is a little bit unusual on certain clay courts.”

Jelena Ostapenko on being in Stuttgart this week without a coach: “Here, I am alone. Some tournaments, I think, are useful to be alone. I mean my doubles partner (Lyudmyla Kichenok) was supporting me today, which was nice. We’ll see what is going to happen in a couple of weeks I mean, of course, I’m still in touch with Marion (Bartoli), but she has a very little baby ,like she’s still very young. So, I feel like for her, it’s very hard to travel like now. So, I want her to stay with the family more like until her baby grows a bit and then we will see. But, I’m still in touch with her.

“Some tournaments, my mum will go but otherwise, we’ll see. Maybe, my hitter will go with me somewhere. I don’t know, it depends.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Karolina Pliskova on building confidence following her second straight win: “I think this is the only way to, you know, get the confidence back and how to play better and better, to go through maybe some ugly matches and through some not easy days which I’m just trying to do. And honestly, I’m not really thinking about titles because, of course, I know I can, if I play well, I can have it. But right now, I’m really taking it day by day and trying to like improve a bit with every day. I think if I stay on this level for a while, I think it should be good for now.”

• Defending champion Petra Kvitova on what she could learn about herself from her hard-fought 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win over World No. 19 Maria Sakkari on Wednesday evening: “I think it was a few factors today I should be proud of. Definitely, one of them is that I stayed there until the end, that I still was fighting even in those games which I didn’t win … even in the second set, which I lost. I think that’s how the effort was that I was still there, fighting for every point.”