Iga Swiatek edged past the resilient Sorana Cirstea to reach her first quarter-final at the Australian Open on Monday night, while her next opponent, Kaia Kanepi, continued her giant-killing run with a 3rd-set tiebreak win over World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka.
This match was so much energy and it was hard to stay calm. I cry when I lose and I cry when I win! I think it started with being a little bit off rhythm. And then after the first set, I was a little bit shaking. I feel like during this whole match my stress level was higher than the previous ones. That's why at the end all these emotions came up. Iga Swiatek
The 2nd-seeded Belarusian followed Simona Halep out of the tournament after the Romanian’s unbeaten start to 2022 came to an abrupt halt at the hands of 32-year-old Alizé Cornet, who made it into a Grand Slam quarter-final for the first time in 63 attempts.
“I have only nice words about her, because I like her on court, how she’s fighting,” Halep said of Cornet. “She deserves what is happening to her now.
“She work hard all the time, and, yeah, I wish her good luck. I really want her to make this dream coming true. I will support her.”
Much later, Kanepi finally sent Sabalenka packing on a super tiebreak, 5-7 6-2 7-6, having failed to convert 5 earlier match points in a nail-biting finish, a little short of midnight at Melbourne Park.
Earlier in the evening, Swiatek, The No 7 seed from Poland had to find another gear after losing the first set on Margaret Court Arena, where the 4th round match been transferred due to a lengthy men’s match on Rod Laver Arena.
Her 5-7 6-3 6-3 win took two-and-a-half hours to complete and the former French Open reacted with an out-pouring of emotion as she shed tears of relief and joy.
“This match was so much energy and it was hard to stay calm,” said Swiatek. “I cry when I lose and I cry when I win!”
Swiatek has methodically dismissed her opponents thus far without dropping a set, much in the manner with which she won her Roland Garros title 2 years ago, while Cirstea had upset 2 top 20 seeds in Petra Kvitova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to this encounter.
It turned into a brutal contest after the Romanian made the more aggressive start, powering returns past Swiatek, and testing the Pole’s defensive skills in the early exchanges.
After a valiant effort from Swiatek, saving break points with strong serving and powerful groundstrokes, Cirstea eventually broke and gained an early 2-0 lead, which she extended to 3-1.
Swiatek began to get the Romanian’s measure and she narrowed the gap before making a break-through as Cirstea went up 4-2, leaving the Pole to hang onto her own deliveries.
She gained more consistent power and variety as the set went on, with the former Roland Garros champion becoming more comfortable on serve, and eventually Swiatek’s mixture of defensive solidity and consistent, regular power earned its rewards as she broke back for 4-4 in the opening set.
It didn’t intimidate the World No 38, who produced aggressive play to gain the critical break for 6-5, and Cirstea stormed her way through a love hold to claim a one-set lead.
Too many errors from Swiatek simply could not match Cirstea’s physical game.
“I think it started with being a little bit off rhythm,” Swiatek said. “And then after the first set, I was a little bit shaking.
“I feel like during this whole match my stress level was higher than the previous ones. That’s why at the end all these emotions came up.”
Swiatek nudged herself ahead in the winner count during the second set, in which she broke Cirstea twice to level the clash.
They traded breaks as the Pole was beginning to play the smarter tennis, trying to expose the Romanian’s short balls whenever they came.
She saved 4 break points to grit out a pivotal service hold for 2-2, but 3 consecutive breaks then followed, and the Pole’s unique offence took advantage of Cirstea’s relatively conservative second serves and, on her 3rd break point, she broke for a 4-2 lead.
She then fended off thunderous returns by Cirstea to hold for 5-3, and slammed a forehand winner down the line to convert her first match point in the following game.
“I feel like when I’m aggressive and coming in, I play with initiative, I have good touch and can finish rallies,” she said. “I had to be on my toes, and I must go forward with this in my shots through to the next round.”
The tears from Swiatek were testimony to the mentally and physically demanding match.
“I feel like she was really putting pressure on, returning in front of the baseline she was playing as fast as my serve was,” the Pole said in her on-court interview. “I just had to be on my toes.”
Swiatek was the only player last season to make the 4th round or better at all 4 Majors and despite being pushed hard by Cirstea, she now has a 29-2 win-loss record against opponents ranked outside the Top 30 in her Grand Slam history.
Cirstea was a set away from reaching her second Grand Slam quarter-final, and her first in 13 years, since she reached that stage at 2009 Roland Garros, but the former World No 21 was unable to hold on to collect the 16th Top 10 win of her career.
Nevertheless, this week’s result continues a strong resurgence for the 31-year-old, who ended a 13-year-drought between WTA singles titles last year in Istanbul.
Very little separated the two statistically in their first meeting, with Swiatek’s 29 winners nearly matched by the 27 from the Romanian’s racket, and the Pole scoring 36 unforced errors, just 3 more than Cirstea.
Swiatek was sturdier winning first-service points, winning 76 percent of those points, while Cirstea had a 58 percent success rate, but the Romanian kept things close by claiming an excellent 76 percent of the Pole’s second-service points.
In the long run, Swiatek got enough of her first serves into play, with 64 percent, to make that disparity work in her favour and, overall, she saved 8 of the 12 break points she faced while converting 6 of her 14 break chances.
Her next opponent, Kanepi is a former World No 15 from Estonia who, at the age 36, continues to be every top player’s nightmare.
She first made the last 8 of a major at Roland Garros 2008 and, over the years, became a regular fixture at that stage, also making the last 8 at Wimbledon 2010, the US Open 2010, Roland Garros 2012, Wimbledon 2013 and the US Open 2017.
This year, the Estonian surpassed her best AO efforts by reaching the 4th round, and now has the full set of Last 8 major appearances.
Kanepi has beaten Sabalenka before, at the Gippsland Trophy 2nd round last year, and this year, her upset of the No 2 seed became her 14th career Top 10 win, and her 9th at a Grand Slam.
The Belarusian has been living precariously, dropping sets in each of her previous matches and struggling with her serve, but she fought to the bitter end to try to overcome the World 115, who is the one player in the draw that most wish to avoid.
It was an enthralling, topsy-turvy contest at Melbourne Park, which Kanepi eventually won, 5-7 6-2 7-6(7).
Sabalenka, who served 15 double-faults, saved 4 match points on the Estonians serve in the 10th game of the decider, but errors in the tiebreak allowed 36-year-old to advance.
“I was really tight,” Kanepi said afterwards. “My hand was shaking when I started serving.
“I didn’t make any first serves in, and that added to the pressure.
“First, I tried to hit [the serve] a bit harder with more spin. Then it didn’t go in. Then I started to hit a bit slower.
“I tried different things to think about than the serve, but I don’t think any of them helped.
“I almost didn’t [regroup]. I guess I was just lucky at the end. So close.”
It seemed that Sabalenka had turned a corner at the start of the match when she won the tight first set after a number of twists and turns but Kanepi refused to lie down and took advantage of the 2nd seed’s back-to-back double-faults to take a 4-0 lead before claiming the second set, and rolled on from there.
She was helped by 5 more double-faults from Sabalenka in her first 2 service games of the second set, including two in a row to fall behind a double break, handing momentum back to Kanepi.
The World No 115 took full advantage and for a set-and-a-half, playing scintillating tennis, and dominating with her forehand to race through the second, and taking a 4-2 lead in the third with a gloriously angled winner.
Three break points for 5-2 came and went after Sabalenka found her biggest serves to grit out the hold in the decider, and she followed that by emerging on top of another multi-deuce tussle, levelling at 4-4 as Kanepi suddenly became error-prone.
The Estonian held to love for 5-4 up, and was 0-40 on Sabalenka’s next delivery, but sprayed errors to allow the Belarusian back in the race by dropping her own serve to love.
Sabalenka coughed up another 3 double-faults in the next game, and lost 7 points in a row to face triple match point, but Kanepi, missing by inches on each of the 4 she held in that game, could not close out the deal.
Despite Sabalenka’s come-back efforts, her accuracy crucially left her in the breaker when her back was to the wall.
In the ensuing super-tiebreak, the Estonian also let a 5-2 lead also evaporate, and at 8-7 down, she barely got a return back into play, but Sabalenka ballooned the short forehand over the baseline, and Kanepi started to celebrate prematurely when she moved 9-7 ahead.
Realising her mistake, the Estonian secured victory on her 5th match point after the Belarusian put her backhand into the net.
“It was a really tough match,” Kanepi, said later. “Actually I thought I was going to lose after the match points I had on my serve were saved, I don’t know how I won.
“The Australian Open is the only Grand Slam where I hadn’t made the quarter finals and I didn’t believe I could do it at my age.”
Kanepi finished with 30 winners balanced by 30 unforced errors, while Sabalenka exceeded her in both categories with 36 winners and 46 unforced errors, including her 15 double-faults.
The quarter-finals will pit Kanepi, the oldest player remaining in the draw, against the youngest in Swiatek.
“I haven’t watched her, I never played her, and I don’t know how her ball feels, so we’ll see when I play her.,” said Kanepi on facing Swiatek for the first time in the quarter-finals.
“What I expect is to play good.”