There are just 2 seeds in the quarter-final line-up at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati – Aryna Sabalenka and Jessica Pegula – after the premature departure of World No 1 Iga Swiatek and 2nd-seeded Anett Kontaveit, who were closely followed by Ons Jabeur and Emma Raducanu at the exit gate.
I don’t know why they [the balls] are different than men’s ones. Fifteen years ago, probably, women had some elbow injuries because the balls were heavier, and they changed them to women’s balls but, right now, we are so physically well prepared, that I don’t think it would happen... We [women] have really powerful games right now. It’s not like 10 years ago. Right now we play powerful, and we, kind of, can’t loosen up our hands with these balls. Iga Świątek
An out-of-sorts Swiatek was out-gunned by 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys, while Zhang Shuai upset Kontaveit, Petra Kvitova outlasted Jabeur, the 5th seed, and 7th-seeded Pegula ended the run of No 10 seed Raducanu in Cincy.
Raducanu had beaten former Grand Slam champions Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in the previous rounds, but was brought down to earth with a bump in a 7-5 6-4 defeat by the highest-ranked American, who is ranked 8 in the world.
“I definitely felt like I was pretty nervous tonight, not really knowing – well, knowing how she plays but not actually practising or hitting with her,” Pegula said. “And then playing at night, the conditions are heavier.
“Just seemed so different when I got out there. I’m happy with how I pulled through with that and I guess another quarter-final.”
Pegula took control early in the match, dictating ground play and converting 2 break-point opportunities to clinch the first set.
Another break early in the second gave the 7th seed the momentum she needed to secure her place in the quarter-finals as Pegula’s technical prowess disrupted the form that Raducanu had produced in her earlier matches and took her to the US Open title last year.
Coming into Cincinnati, Pegula has reached the semi-final stage at 3 of the last 4 WTA 1000s, and won 34 matches at this level, which is 2 wins shy of Swiatek’s tour-leading mark of 36 wins.
Her greater experience showed as she diffused the 19-year old’s offensive baseline game by keeping Raducanu on the move and, for much of the match, on the back foot.
Following the early exchange of breaks in the opener, Pegula pulled away by breaking the British No 1 for a second time to take the set and, having broken again in the 3rd game of the second, the American methodically took care of her own service games to seal a clinical victory, finishing with 21 winners to 10 unforced errors, while Raducanu struck 15 winners, including 7 aces, but succumbed with 21 miscues.
Raducanu leaves with a major confidence boost, though, and while she will drop out of the Top 10 on Monday, her dominant wins over Williams and Azarenka provide the perfect preparation for her US Open title defence in New York in about 10 days time or so.
“I mean, definitely, having to beat Serena and Vika is not easy, even no matter how they played, or Serena hasn’t been doing as well, whatever,” Pegula reflected on the 19-year from Bromley’s achievements. “I think handling the moment like that is really difficult.
“For her, she’s already had success, but for her to handle that, I think it’s really hard no matter what.
“I don’t care what you say, or how you are playing, or whatever. To beat both of those girls back-to-back is tough.”
Pegula now faces a red-hot Caroline Garcia in the quarter-finals, after the Frenchwoman came through with a strong win over Belgian Elise Mertens, 6-4 7-5, and who beat the American at the start of the season in Sydney.
“I think she’s someone that no one really wants to play, because she hits the ball really hard, serves really well, super powerful,” Pegula said. “Has big groundstrokes and, kind of, takes the racket out of your hands sometimes.
“Hard to play when you can’t get a rhythm. She’s really done well the last couple of months, which is nice to see, because obviously she was at the top of the game for a while too.”
“Yeah, tougher match than, I think, people will talk about, or give credit to, but she’s been playing really well. It will be a tough match.”
Another American, Keys, earlier accounted for Swiatek to take her place in the quarters, and register her first win over a reigning World No 1.
Swiatek saved 4 match points but was far from her best as she exited a second tournament in the North American swing at the last-16 stage following last week’s Canadian Open.
Keys had failed to take a set off the Pole in 2 prior meetings, but she out-paced the Pole with her powerful returns and groundstrokes, breaking the top seed 5 times in her 6-3 6-4 victory.
“I obviously had a couple of games with a couple of match points, but I’m just so happy to be able to get the win,” said Keys, the 2019 Cincinnati champion. “The last time I played her, she beat me pretty badly, so I’m pretty glad to get that one under my belt.”
Keys next will face Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, who beat another American, Alison Riske-Amritraj, 6-2 6-4, to sail into the Last 8.
Swiatek is unhappy about the ball being used by the women at the US Open as well as the tournaments leading up to the final Grand Slam of the year, which are lighter than the balls that the men use during the North American hard-court swing.
Speaking after her two-set victory over Sloane Stephens in the 2nd-round, Swiatek explained: “We make more mistakes [with these balls], for sure, so I don’t think that’s really nice to watch, visually.
“I don’t know why they are different than men’s ones. Fifteen years ago, probably, women had some elbow injuries because the balls were heavier, and they changed them to women’s balls but, right now, we are so physically well prepared, that I don’t think it would happen.
“I feel, it’s really hard to control them, but everybody has the same conditions, so we are trying to deal with that. I don’t get why they are different, honestly.
“We [women] have really powerful games right now. It’s not like 10 years ago. Right now we play powerful, and we, kind of, can’t loosen up our hands with these balls.”
The US Open is currently the only Grand Slam where the men and women use a different ball, while all the the joint events outside of North America, including Madrid and Rome, use the same balls.
The 21-year-old Pole revealed that she had set the ball rolling last year with the backing of Paula Badosa when she talked to WTA CEO Steve Simon about getting the women to use the same balls as the men, but nothing has come of it, so far.
“I think those balls are horrible, especially after, like, three games of really hard playing, they are getting more and more light,” Swiatek added. “At the end, you can’t even serve at 170km/h because it’s going to fly like crazy. I think they are pretty bad.
“Maybe we should push a bit more. I stopped pushing, and trying to convince WTA, because the war in Ukraine happened, and I refocused on something else.”
Meanwhile, Wimbledon runner-up and 5th seed Jabeur has been struggling this week, and was ushered out by Petra Kvitova, 6-1 4-6 6-0, who has won The Championships twice.
Kvitova dominated for the most part, striking 31 winners, including 5 aces, to 43 unforced errors, while Jabeur committed 30 miscues to only 9 winners.
The Tunisian coughed up 2 double-faults in her opening service game and only landed 35% of her first serves in the first set, which improved to 62% in the second, which enabled Jabeur to level the match as Kvitova’s level dipped, but the 5th seed thenfell away in the decider, growing more frustrated at her form as the match progressed.
She still managed to come up with a sprinkling of her trademark hot shots, with a whipped forehand pass in the 2nd game of the second set providing a springboard to get a foothold in the match.
She also pulled off a remarkable sliced backhand passing shot from behind the service line, with the ball dipping below net height, to reach set point.
Kvitova, the World No 28, found her best returns on the big points, slamming clean winners to break for 4-0 in the first set and for 5-0 in the third, while a series of deep, powerful returns also elicited key errors from Jabeur.
The Czech played so well that she felt the need to apologise to Jabeur, her good friend.
“I have to say sorry to Ons for some of those lines,” Kvitova said on court. “I didn’t mean it! Sometimes there are days where you go for it, and it just makes the court, and other times, not.
“It depends how I wake up in the morning, but today it was really a great match, and a great fight from both sides.
“I know the score looks a bit huge but it wasn’t like that. There were many games with deuces, even the last game was really tight, so I’m really happy I made it in the end, somehow!
“It’s always taking a while, but I’m really enjoying it here,” Kvitova added. “I didn’t play my best in Toronto, losing in the first round, so this is really something I needed, a good boost!
“I’ll try to keep going, because I know it’s really tough and, from the first rounds, we’re seeing some really incredible matches. Being in a quarter-final again is very special.”
The left-handed Czech now faces Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, who staged a stunning come-back to beat Russian Veronika Kudermetova, 3-6 7-6(4) 6-3, to reach her first WTA 1000 quarter-final, following up on her late-night heroics in beating No 3 seed Badosa from Spain, finishing in the early hours of Thursday morning at 01:30 local time.
Having come through qualifying, the 63rd-ranked Tomljanovic was broken twice in the opening set, and once in the second but, after edging Kudermetova, the World No 20, in the second-set breaker, the Aussie saved the only break point she faced in the final set, breaking the Russian in the penultimate game and closing out a 2-hour and 57-minute win.
“The restaurant is still open and I’m going to get five Graeter’s ice creams,” said Tomljanovic.
At the foot of the draw, World No 2 Kontaveit looked to have taken charge of her contest against Zhang Shuai when she won the opening set at a canter, but her Chinese opponent dug deep to claim a stunning 2-6 6-4 6-4 upset win.
The match was played on the Porsche Court, which could only muster a dozen or so spectators.
Zhang levelled the match by managing her service games while increasing her return pressure and Kontaveit faced break points in her first 2 service games of the second set before the Chinese finally earned the only break of the set for a 4-3 lead and closed out the set.
The two traded blows in a tight decider that saw 4 consecutive breaks of serve before Zhang broke Kontaveit for the 5th and final time to lead 5-4, and then closed out the win after an hour and 59 minutes.
Zhang meets last year’s US Open semi-finalist Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated Shelby Rogers, 6-4 6-7(2) 6-4, sealing victory with a backhand winner down the line.
“It was a crazy match, she played unbelievable tennis,” said Sabalenka of the American.
The two combined for a total of 23 aces over their 2-hour and 35-minute showdown, but it was Sabalenka who overcame a wobble in the second set to edge the American for the win.
Sabalenka improved her record to 2-0 against the American, and advanced to her 7th WTA 1000 quarter-final, and second in Cincinnati.
Rogers came into the match with an outstanding 3-1 record against Top 10 opposition this season, but her two losses this year will have come at the hands of Sabalenka, and despite out-acing the Belarusian 13 to 10, the American was broken 6 times in the match.