World No 1 Ash Barty remains on track to add the Rome title to her expanding collection but must overcome Coco Gauff in the quarter-finals, who upset Aryna Sabalenka, the Madrid champion, at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia on Thursday, while Elina Svitolina took out Garbiñe Muguruza and meets Iga Swiatek after the reigning Roland Garros champion battled past Barbora Krejcikova.
I was just trying to find my good game, trying to move quick, trying to be aggressive at the same time. When I play against some big hitters like Petra [Kvitova], Garbiñe [Muguruza], Aryna [Sabalenka] as well, they are really taking big swings. You have no time to do anything, so you have to be really quick, you have to be on your toes all the time, try to get your own, create your own opportunities. Elina Svitolina
Barty, the favourite for the title, ran out a 6-3 6-3 winner against Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova but 7th-seeded Sabalenka met her match in Gauff, 7-5 6-3.
The top-seeded Australian was thrilled to see people on the stands during her victorious round 3 match against Kudermetova as she made her first ever appearance on the Campo Centrale.
“It’s intimidating, without a doubt,” the 25-year old said. “I think it was really nice to have some people in here today.
“Obviously, the crowds were on the grounds from today, which is really exciting, I think, for us players. It creates more of an atmosphere.
“I know the Italian supporters and the Italian people here in Rome absolutely love their tennis. They’re passionate. They really bring a pretty cool vibe.”
Playing on the main court in Rome had a strong impact on Barty.
“I think, that court, you forget how steep the stands are,” she added. “Literally feels like everyone, kind of the stadium, is kind of surrounding you and on top of you.
“Really cool to be able to walk out there and kind of be wowed a little bit. It was pretty cool”.
Despite a slow start, Barty, who again wore heavy strapping on her left thigh, eventually found her way past the powerful hitting of Kudermetova in straight sets to set up a quarter-final first-time meeting with Gauff.
America’s 17-year old Coco Gauff produced a flawless performance against the mighty Sabalenka, effectively dismantling one of the hottest players on the women’s tour at the moment to 7-5, 6-3 in just under 90 minutes.
Sabalenka was the overwhelming favourite ahead of the third-round encounter, but the teenager broke in the opening game, and was pegged back in game 8 as the Belarusian drew level only for the American to break again 3 games later.
Normally Sabalenka finishes points with a couple of searing strikes but Gauff’s speed in defence forced the Belarusian into several shot rallies that often ended in miscue.
Gauff rolled her forehand high and deep, and jumped on any short reply with her powerful backhand but, most importantly the young American avoided the double-faults that have plagued her in the past and got her serve in.
Breaks in games 7 and 9 of the second set secured the win.
“A 10 out of 10,” Gauff rated her performance. “I think I played pretty well the whole match.”She’s not an easy opponent.
“I mean, sometimes you’re always on defence, so sometimes you just have to scramble a little bit. I think today I played smart and well.”
Gauff made a tweak to the way she holds the racket on serve, and smoothed out the rhythm on her motion to cut out those pesky double-faults.
She is learning to play within her limits, using her less potent forehand to set up her opportunities and going for them with her two-handed backhand as her put-away shot.
Sabalenka was a good match-up for Gauff, because her offence allowed the teenager to play defence, her speciality.
Next up will be a trickier, higher-ranked opponent in Barty who, unlike Sabalenka, offer a variety of spins and speeds to opponents alongside a steely tactical brain.
“It will be great to see, like, where my level is,” Gauff said. “I mean, she’s the No 1 player in the world.
“I have no pressure on me. If that ends up being my opponent, I’m just going to go out there and see what I can do and try my best.”
Fifth seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine beat Garbiñe Muguruza, the 12th seed, 6-4 6-2, her first completed clay-court win over the Spaniard.
Svitolina, who won a pair of Rome titles in 2017 and 2018 and got engaged to to Gaël Monfils earlier in the spring, has been on an upswing after a slow start to the season, and she certainly found her form Muguruza on Thursday.
“I was just trying to find my good game, trying to move quick, trying to be aggressive at the same time,” Svitolina said after the match.
“When I play against some big hitters like Petra [Kvitova], Garbiñe, Aryna [Sabalenka] as well, they are really taking big swings.
“You have no time to do anything, so you have to be really quick, you have to be on your toes all the time, try to get your own, create your own opportunities.
“That’s why I was going into the match with an aggressive mindset. I think in the end I was really composed and really tough on the important moments.”
Holding to open, the Ukrainian led by a break 3 times before the Spaniard levelled the set at 4 games apiece.
Back in front with a rare hold of serve, Svitolina, a former World No 3, got to set point in the following game and converted when Muguruza sent a forehand long, her 12th unforced error of the day.
Muguruza grabbed the momentum with an early break advantage in the second, but Svitolina broke straight back off a double-fault and ultimately reeled off the final 5 games of the match, edging over the finish line thanks to a drop-shot duffed into the net.
“She was fighting and she was trying to find her own game, so this was a good fight, some really tough moments in the first set,” Svitolina said. “I was happy I hold and was still really aggressive.”
Quick and comprehensive over an hour and 15 minutes, Svitolina employed excellent aggression throughout, striking 23 winners to just 11 unforced errors, and was focused on key points with a 7-for-8 break point conversion rate, while Muguruza made 17 winners to 22 unforced errors, and only earned the 1 break of serve in the second set.
Standing between Svitolina and the semi-finals is reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek, who survived a three-set thriller with Barbora Krejcikova earlier on Thursday.
Swiatek and Svitolina seemed destined to play in Paris last fall before the Ukrainian lost a surprising quarter-final encounter with qualifier Nadia Podoroska.
‘It wasn’t fun. It was kind of brutal for me,’ admitted Swiatek after her tough battle with Krejcikova.
Swiatek struggled against the crafty Czech, who held 2 match points in the second but failed to convert, and then did not give up in the highly competitive decider but, in the end, the Pole advanced into the quarter-finals, 3-6 7-6(5) 7-5.
The 19-year-old Pole admitted she had a difficult day, mentally, but was proud of her efforts in coming through, saying: “It was hard to have fun. I had fun when I played drop-shots because today I felt them really good.
“Overall it wasn’t fun. It was kind of brutal for me. I asked myself a question, what would annoy me in that situation, so I tried to do that.
“Sometimes it didn’t look pretty, but I’m happy that I could do that. One year ago I wouldn’t even come up with a solution like that. That’s progress.”