Aryna Sabalenka came through another difficult contest at the Australian Open on Saturday, the World No 2 overcoming both her serving issues and the loss of an opening set but prevailing over Marketa Vondrousova, while Alizé Cornet and Kaia Kanepi continued their seed-slaying runs as Simona Halep and Elise Mertens sailed into the Last 16.
I don’t want to focus that far, I just want to focus game by game. I just want to push myself and see how far I can go. Aryna Sabalenka
“I’m really happy right now and mostly I’m happy that I made only 10 double-faults,” said Sabalenka. “She played unbelievable tennis today.
“I pushed myself really hard and I’m really happy with this win.
“I had some trouble [with my serve], I really expect in the next match a great serve. I’ll just keep working on my serve, and keep hoping it gets better with every match.”
The Belarusian is certainly improving with every match she survives, demonstrating time and again her fighting qualities and resilience in spite of the handicap of her serve.
Vondrousova has struggled to find the form that took her to a maiden 2019 Roland Garros final, which she lost Ash Barty, but she has since taken out Simona Halep at Indian Wells and Rome in 2019, as well as Naomi Osaka en route to the silver medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
On Saturday, the left-handed Czech looked intent to add Sabalenka to that list early on Margaret Court Arena as the second seed surrendered the opening set for the 3rd straight match at Melbourne Park.
Vondrousova’s greater consistency proved critical, and the former World No 14’s patience was rewarded with a crucial first-set break at 3-3 when she fired a winning forehand pass on break point, and then held on from there to notch up the first set in 38 minutes.
Sabalenka regrouped in the second, slamming a backhand crosscourt winner to break the Czech for an early 2-0 lead, the only one of the set, and it eased the tension for the Belarusian who, for much of a 5-game stretch, was almost unplayable.
The 23-year old picked up another swift break in the decider to lead 2-1, and was unchallenged from there, having reined in her blustery aggression and double-fault count to romp past the 31st seed, 4-6 6-3 6-1, after 78 minutes.
She effectively overcame her early serving issues to pummel the Czech into submission in the decider, breaking 3 times to set up a 4th round meeting against Kanepi, the seed-slayer from Estonia.
“I don’t want to focus that far, I just want to focus game by game,” she said when asked about her chances of a first Grand Slam title. “I just want to push myself and see how far I can go.”
Kanepi won their only previous meeting last year at the Gippsland Trophy, which took place at Melbourne Park, the site of the Australian Open.
The 6-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist staged her own come-back win on Saturday, ousting homeland hope Maddison Inglis, 2-6 6-2 6-0, to reach the AO 4th round for the first time.
Kanepi was dominated by the 24-year-old Aussie wild-card in the first set on Rod Laver Arena, but the 36-year old turned the tables, using her considerable skills and experience to storm past Inglis, who lost her capacity to hold serve, conceding her next 7 service matches to hand momentum back to the Estonian.
Once ranked 15 in the world, Kanepi, who upset AO 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the first round, is the oldest woman in the tournament, and she has now made the last 16 at each of the 4 Grand Slams and stands just one win away from her 7th career Grand Slam quarter-final.
Another giant-killer is Cornet, who downed 3rd-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza on Thursday and continued her run with a 4-6 6-4 6-2 win over 29th seed Tamara Zidansek from Romania, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros last year, in a gruelling two-hour, 43-minute encounter.
Recovering from a set and 4-1 down, Cornet will play Halep for a place in her first-ever Grand Slam quarter-final, 13 years after reaching the AO last 16 for the first time as a teenager,
“I just kept going, I was just fighting, I put all the resilience I could put in this match, and finally I came back,” said Cornet, who leads the head-to-head with Halep 3-1. “It’s a magic win for me. I’m so happy.”
Played on her 32nd birthday in searing conditions, Cornet lost her cool when she received a second time violation from the umpire.
“You can’t give me a code violation for that,” a perplexed Cornet said to the umpire while gesticulating. “I didn’t do anything … I didn’t take my time, I just took the balls. I didn’t even wait for one second. I took the ball and I went to the line.
“What is your problem with me? Listen to me: we don’t even have time to get a towel! They are over there, and that is very far when you have to walk.
“Can you hear? You are sitting there saying, ‘code violation’. Don’t you think that is too much!”
The confrontation and code violation clearly got to Cornet as she immediately fluffed a forehand long to lose the point from the resulting second serve against the 29th seed.
She then went on to stage a stunning recovery, winning the second set 6-4 before taking that momentum into the decider to win that 6-2 and progress through to the 4th round.
“I just kept fighting, kept trying my best, and the match turned around,” Cornet said afterwards. “In the third set, it was very hard physically for both of us. It was burning hot outside.
“I’m really glad that I came out with the win the day of my birthday. It means a lot.”
From the frustration of the second time violation to having the MCA crowd singing happy birthday to her after an inspired victory, it was quite a day for Cornet.
Meanwhile, Simona Halep, a former World No 1, is seeded 14th this fortnight and feeling healthy as she advances to the 4th round for the 5th straight year with a straight-sets victory over Danka Kovinic, who took down US Open champion Emma Raducanu in a long encounter on Thursday night.
The Romanian demolished the Montenegrin trailblazer, 6-2 6-1, on a baking hot day at John Cain Arena, completely overpowering Kovinic.
After missing Wimbledon and the French Open in an injury-plagued 2021, Halep is now back to peak fitness and has notched 8 straight wins, including a warm-up title in Melbourne.
“Well, I feel great that I can play the fourth round again,” said Halep, who was beaten by Serena Williams in the quarter-finals last year. “In front of this crowd is always a pleasure, so thank you everybody for staying in this heat because it’s super hot today.”
It took Halep just 64 minutes to dispatch Kovinic, keeping her energy expenditure to a minimum on the hot summer’s day at Melbourne Park.
“I feel like I played great, [Kovinic] was a little bit tired, she had a tough match before me,” added Halep.
“I feel good, more confident now because last year was a tough year and now I just enjoy playing tennis because I’m healthy.”
Halep has now won 31 matches at Melbourne Park, which equals her tally at Roland Garros, the major at where she had previously notched the most singles victories.
“[This is the] best I’ve played in the last months,” said Halep, who won the Melbourne Summer Set 1 title to open the season and has yet to drop a set this week. “I feel great physically, first of all.
“Mentally I’m confident and also strong, I would say. Feeling the game. Feeling joy out there. I think that helps me to be positive and to be confident that I have a chance every time I step on the court.
“I feel I’m in a good spot. I really trust that I can play good tennis here.”
Elsewhere, American Danielle Collins downed the Danish teenager, Clara Tauson to set-up a Last 16 contest with Mertens, the 19th seed from Belgium.
The 27th seed was a set and 1-3 down against the 19-year old, but turned it around to win, 4-6 6-4 7-5, in the searing heat of Rod Laver Arena.
“It was a long battle and super happy to be able to pull it out, especially how the first set ended and in moments not playing my best tennis,” said Collins. “She was playing really well and at an incredibly high level and we’re going to be seeing some good results from her moving forward.
“It’s going to be exciting.”
Tauson, ranked 39, was making her main draw debut at Melbourne Park and stunned in-form 6th seed Anett Kontaveit from Latvia in the 2nd round, signalling her arrival with her first win over a top 10 player.
Collins made a dream start, breaking to race 4-1 ahead, winning 10 straight points at one stage, before Tauson battled back and reeled off 5 straight games to take the set.
The Dane broke for a 3-1 lead in the second, but the match hinged on the 8th game when Collins broke back and the momentum shift saw her win the next 2 games to level the match.
“I was getting pretty hard on myself,” said Collins. “I needed to just try to get my rhythm back and get into some long rallies, and really make her play and work for it.”
It was a battle of memorable rallies and aggressive ball-striking, as Collins, who is one of the game’s grittiest and most intense fighters, willed herself to a 3-set triumph on her 4th match point, having eventually broken Tauson’s resolve.
“We’re gonna be seeing some really good results from her going forward, so it’s going to be exciting,” Collins added.
Collins’ next opponent, 2018 semi-finalist Mertens cruised past China’s Zhang Shuai, 6-2 6-2.
It was a dominating performance that last 70 minutes at KIA Arena, with Mertens committing only 9 unforced errors while Zhang sprayed 28.
“To win is always a good thing,” said the No 19 seed, who broke the Chinese serve 5 times. “Most of all, I’m pleased about my performance.
“I think I served pretty well, and that made my service game a bit easier.
“I think it was very hot today, and the balls were flying a little bit, so I think I controlled that pretty well.
“She was making a bit more mistakes than she used to maybe, but I think overall, [it was] a consistent match for me.”
Mertens and Collins have split their two prior meetings, but it was the American who scored a 6-2 6-4 victory in the 3rd round of the WTA 500 event in Chicago last autumn.