Barty Maintains Her Focus, Rallies Over Pliskova

Ashleigh Barty (photo: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix)

STUTTGART/WASHINGTON, April 23, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Friday’s quarterfinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix pared the lineup of eight down to four – featuring six of the current WTA Top 10 players. It’s only too bad that because of COVID-19 health and safety restrictions, there were no fans allowed inside Porsche Arena to experience the action and show support for their favorite players in the kickoff tournament to the European clay season.

The quarterfinal round began with World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the tournament’s top seed in her Stuttgart debut, facing 2018 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix champion Karolina Pliskova on clay for the first time. Could the World No. 6 from the Czech Republic pull off her third consecutive victory – not only in the tournament but also for the first time this season – to reach her first semifinal of 2021 and first since Rome last year? Or, would the affable Aussie, who has emerged with victories in four of her six previous tussles against the Czech No. 1, come through with a win and advance to the semifinals and keep alive her bid to become the first reigning No. 1 to lift the Stuttgart trophy since Justine Henin in 2007?

If you guessed Barty’s storyline, you picked correctly. Plus, she’s celebrating a birthday this weekend, too. Maybe, a little bit of extra incentive.

After an uncharacteristic, low energy start in which she was broken in back-to-back games and lost the final four games of the opening set, the soon-to-be 25-year-old Barty came alive in the second and third sets to gain a satisfying 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory in two hours and one minute for her 18th victory of the season. On five different occasions, she was two points from losing with Pliskova serving at 5-4 in the third set, but found a way to break back – counterpunching her way out of trouble – and fought off defeat. In improving her career head-to-head against Pliskova to 5-2, it was also her eighth straight Top 10 win and fifth this year.

“It was an incredible match, I think two very different sets, the first and the second,” Barty said during her on-court interview after securing her third semifinal berth of 2021. “I thought the third set was extraordinary. I gave a lot of opportunities for myself and Karolina was able to come up with some quality stuff. I’m really glad I won the battle.”

After dropping the opening set, Barty went to work and attacked Pliskova’s second serve. She mixed in her winning combination of drop shots and backhand slice, which caused Pliskova to come unhinged. After Barty broke to go ahead 4-1, Pliskova slammed her racquet into the red dirt, borne out of frustration from committing double fault that set up break point as well as from hitting an errant forehand return. Barty finished the middle set with nine winners and took advantage of many of Pliskova’s 10 unforced errors.

As the final set came into focus, Pliskova capitalized on a double fault by Barty on a break point that gave her an early 2-1 lead. She consolidated the break with a forehand winner that capped a nine-shot rally and ended the 14-point game with a 3-1 advantage. After a series of holds, Pliskova fended off a break point in the eighth game, still a break up on Barty at 5-3.

However, Barty roared back and on her fifth break point of a 14-point game 10th game, converted it after Pliskova hit a forehand into the net that squashed an 11-shot rally. Barty consolidated the break with a hold at love, capped by her sixth ace, to push ahead 6-5. Finally, Barty persevered to the end and dodged defeat by prevailing on her second match-point opportunity after Pliskova hit a forehand return long on the 21st shot of the final rally. It was a disappointing end to Pliskova’s day.

The World No. 1 Barty, who is playing in her first European red clay event since winning the 2019 French Open, was asked during her post-match interview what she learned on court against Pliskova. “I had to learn very quickly today,” she said. “I think I was able to find my balance a little bit better and transition in and out of the court. Next time on the court, I’ll learn again. I just need to try to continue to grow my game the best that I can.

“I missed some returns that I would like to have back but on most of those they were break points. On those, you have to tip your hat to your opponent when they come up with quality. No doubt, Karolina is a big competitor – on top of her game for a very long time – and I knew I would have to do something pretty special to claw back and get the match back on my terms.”

Barty, who won the final four games of the last set, had a look of relief as she shook hands with Pliskova at the net. She finished with seven aces, hit 25 winners to 28 unforced errors and converted five of 19 break-point opportunities. Pliskova’s five double faults and 39 unforced errors contributed to her undoing and were not enough to offset her five aces and 16 winners. She was three-for-three on break points, only one of them coming after the first set. Barty outpointed Pliskova 95-80.

One thing was certain: Barty never lost faith in herself. She remained focused. “You have to create opportunities and keep trying, keep going, enjoy the battle. I certainly had a lot of fun today,” she said.

“I thought I brought out some of my better tennis when I had to. That’s what I love about this sport. It’s a funny scoring system – you’re never out of it – and you just have to keep trying every time you step up to the line to serve or return. You have to make sure you’re ready.”

Svitolina dethrones defending champion Kvitova

The victory advanced Barty to Saturday’s semifinals against either No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, who won 11 of the final 13 games to overcome defending 2020 champion and No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-2. She secured her semifinal berth on her fourth match-point opportunity after saving two match points in the second set. Svitolina, who has won three straight over Kvitova, never gave up believing in her ability to pull out victory after defeat was staring her in the face.

“It was a really tough battle today,” Svitolina admitted during an on-court interview after her victory. “I was expecting for a big match, but I didn’t know it would this tough. In the end, I am very happy that I came back in the second set and to win. This is definitely something special.”

The World No. 5 Svitolina finished with seven aces and 28 winners to 27 unforced errors and converted six of 15 break points against the World No. 10 Kvitova. The Czech No. 2 hit five aces and hit 40 winners but committed 49 unforced errors. She was able to break the Ukrainian just three times in 16 tries. Svitolina outpointed Kvitova 125-111.

During her virtual press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Svitolina if she missed the Stuttgart crowds this year. She said: “For sure, I would love to have people and a crowd because there have been some great points, having some hot shots in this match and it will be amazing to have the crowd. But you have to look at the exceptional situation as it is right now. For sure, it’s sad but it has to be like that. I prefer to still play the match and [have] people watching on TV than not to play at all.”

Halep reaches first semifinal since Rome

World No. 3 Simona Halep of Romania, seeded second in Stuttgart, advanced to her first semifinal since Rome last fall with her 6-1, 6-4 victory over 34th-ranked Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia. Halep garnered her 12th career Stuttgart win and reached her third Porsche Tennis Grand Prix semifinal (the others were in 2015 and 2017) on the strength of 14 winners and five breaks of Alexandrova’s serve. The Russian No. 2, playing in her third quarterfinal of the season, committed 33 unforced errors and was able to convert just two of 10 break points against Halep.

Halep, who outpointed Alexandrova 71-47, advanced to face No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

Tennis TourTalk asked Halep how pleased she is with her start on clay following her second consecutive straight-set victory. She responded: “The start is really good. Always I’m confident when I start the clay court season. This time it’s been better than I thought [it would be] because I had a long break. These match [wins] have been important for my mental, for myself. I will take a big plus from these two days.”

Sabalenka rebounds against Kontaveit

World No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka won the final six games of her two hour and 28-minute battle with 27th-ranked Anett Kontaveit to reach the semifinals against World No. 3 and second seed Simona Halep in her Stuttgart debut. The Belarus native pounded out 37 winners to overcome 50 unforced errors and garnered three of her five breaks of the Estonian’s serve in the final set.

While Kontaveit hit 27 winners to 28 unforced errors, she was able to convert only three of 18 service breaks, which allowed Sabalenka to mount a third-set comeback. The two played a total of 222 points with Sabalenka winning 116 to 106 for Kontaveit. The Belarusian is vying for her first clay-court title.

“It was a tough match,” Sabalenka admitted during her virtual press conference. “[Anett] fought really well and played really well. I think in the second set I was really emotional and fell back on some bad habits. I dropped my level. After I dropped my serve to start the third set, I tried to stay calm. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as I did the second set. I’m just really happy with this win. It was a great match.”

While Kontaveit gave props to Sabalenka for playing a great match, she said her body wore down. “I think overall I played a very good match,” she told Tennis TourTalk. “However, I felt my body let me down a little bit in the third set with my lower back. I couldn’t really bend over to return serves. Then, I felt my shoulder hurting at the end of the second set. So, I’m a little bit disappointed my body let me down. I felt I couldn’t be as competitive in the third set. I gave it my all in the first two sets. I left it all out there today.”

Sabalenka will go into her semifinal having won eight of her last 10 matches on clay while Halep can go one better with 9-1 mark in her last 10 clay matches.

Kichenok/Olaru advance to doubles semifinals

Unseeded Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine and Raluca Olaru of Romania advanced to the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Germany’s Mona Barthel and Anna-Lena Friedsam in one hour and 13 minutes. Kichenok and Olaru outpointed their opponents 61-41. Next, they will face No. 1 seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Also, unseeded Vivian Heisen of Germany and Wang Yafan of China eliminated Germany’s Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to the semifinals against unseeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Jennifer Brady of the United States. Heisen and Wang outpointed the German duo 57-45.

Friday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix results

Saturday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix order of play

What they’re saying

Ashleigh Barty on if she feeling any different aura as World No. 1 working out of tough situations, such as Karolina Pliskova serving for the match at 5-4, than in years past:

“No, not at all. I think it’s experience that helps regardless of what number is next to my name. I think over the last two, three, four years I’ve been able to build more experience in big matches against extremely tough opponents.

“I had plenty of opportunities in that third set in a lot of Karolina’s service games, so I just wanted to try and press again and make her really earn that last game. To finally take an opportunity was important but also knowing I had trust and believe in myself that each game I had opportunities. So, I just needed to continue to try and do the right thing.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Ashleigh Barty on what a match like Friday’s quarterfinal win over Karolina Pliskova taught her:

“I think in a sense it was a probably match of two sets to begin with. I felt like in the first set, I wasn’t able to build any pressure and Karolina was getting in and out of her service games too quickly, and in turn was going to have freedom on my service games. But in the second set, being able to flip that switch right from the first game was important and that was something I wanted to focus on. Then, to make it more of a physical match in that second and third set was kind of what I was after, and over time where I would get the match back on my terms as much as we expected.”

What they’re posting on social media