Cincinnati | Sabalenka and Rybakina need 3 sets apiece to get off the mark

World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina had to go the distance to advance to the Last 16 at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon, against Ann Li and Jelena Ostapenko respectively, while Coco Gauff cruised past Mayer Sherif, but Petra Kvitova, the 9th seed, fell to 18-year old Linda Noskova, and Donna Vekic toppled 2-time champion Victoria Azarenka.

It was definitely a little bit of an advantage on her side because she played a lot of matches here. For me, it takes some time to adjust to the surface. I was really happy to win this match. She played unbelievable tennis. It was really tough today. Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka held off the 192th-ranked American, 7-5 2-6 6-4, after 2 hours and 3 minutes, during which the Belarusian struggled against Li’s all-court game, before steeling herself in the 3rd set to wrench back control of the match, and get the win.

“It was definitely a little bit of an advantage on her side because she played a lot of matches here,” said Sabalenka, who was a semi-finalist here last year. “For me, it takes some time to adjust to the surface.

“I was really happy to win this match. She played unbelievable tennis. It was really tough today.”

Li came through qualifying with wins over fellow American Lauren Davis and Alizé Cornet from France to make it into the main draw, where she upset Australian Open semi-finalist Magda Linette from Poland in the 1st-round.

The 23-year-old flummoxed Sabalenka with her attacking game style and deft hands to steal the second set, but the 2nd seed rebounded by keeping the pressure on Li from the baseline.

Li held a game point to hold to 2-1 early in the decider, but a pair of tight forehands gave Sabalenka a break chance, and the American coughed up an inopportune double-fault to hand over the game.

From there, Sabalenka raced out to a 5-1 before fending off Li’s last come-back attempt to seal the match and set up a contest with Russian Daria Kasatkina, the No 14 seed, next.

Kasatkina took out her former compatriot Varvara Gracheva, a lucky loser who now plays under the French flag, 6-3 6-1.


Elena Rybakina edged Jelena Ostapenko to reach the Round of 16 at the Western & Southern Open

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Rybakina, the World No 4 from Kazakhstan, edged her way past Latvia’s Ostapenko, 6-7(6) 6-2 6-4, at the Linder Tennis Family Center on Wednesday night.

Last year’s Wimbledon champion took 2 hours and 17 minutes to pull off the come-from-behind win over the 2017 Roland Garros winner, taking their head-to-head record to 3-2.

This season’s ace leader, Rybakina fired 11 more on Wednesday to bring her 2023 total up to 392, while she also converted 7 of her 12 break points to overcome the 20th-ranked Ostapenko in the big-hitting contest.

The Latvian was unable to serve out the first set at either 5-4 or 6-5, and Rybakina used powerful forehands to build a 5-2 lead in the tiebreak, but Ostapenko came back from 6-3 and triple set point down, slamming a forehand return winner to grab her own set point in the breaker.

All told, Ostapenko reeled off 5 points in a row to take the one-set lead, but, in the second, Rybakina took advantage of a pair of Latvian double-faults to lead by a break at 3-2, and levelled the match from there, after a set in which the Ostapenko doubled the Kazakh’s unforced error count by 14 to 7.

Rybakina broke in the first game of the third set, but Ostapenko levelled affairs at 4-4 with a winning overhead.

The Kazakh then cracked a backhand return winner down the line to break for 5-4, before converting her 2nd match point in the following game.

Rybakina, the No 4 seed, will face qualifier Jasmine Paolini on Thursday for a quarter-final spot, after the Italian defeated fellow qualifier Cristina Bucsa from Spain, 6-1 6-3, earlier on Wednesday.


7th-seeded Coco Gauff dropped just 4 games in her opening win over Mayar Sherif on Wednesday night at Cincy

© Aaron Doster/Getty Images

Later, Gauff, the 7th-seeded 19-year old American, rolled to a 6-2 6-2 win over Sherif on Wednesday night to reach the 3rd-round at the WTA 1000 event in Cincinnati for the first time.

A 1st-round bye put her into Round 2, and just 80 minutes on court against Sherif sent her into the Last 16 in Cincy for the first time in her 4th main-draw appearance.

After Gauff and Sherif traded service breaks to start the match, the American denied the Egyptian 3 points to hold for 2-2, and was off and running from then on.

Gauff later saved 2 break points in the first game of the second set, and won the last 3 games of the match.

With the win, the American improves her match tally to 7-1 since Wimbledon, with all those wins coming in straight sets, while her win over the World No 33 improves her record to 23-3 against players ranked lower than her on hard courts this year, with her last loss coming against Anastasia Potapova in Miami.


18-year old Linda Noskova earned her first win over her idol Petra Kvitova, defeating the 2021 finalist in 3 sets at the Western & Southern Open

© Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

For just the 4th time in her career, Gauff will face a player younger than her in the next round in the form of Noskova, the Czech 18-year old, who upset her 9th-seeded compatriot Petra Kvitova in 3 sets to advance to the 3rd-round.

The pair have played once previously, this spring at Indian Wells, where Gauff won 6-4 6-3, and this encounter is the first WTA 1000 Round of 16 between two teenagers since Caroline Wozniacki faced Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Miami in 2010.

A qualifier in Cincy, Noskova heralded a change with the upset of her countrywoman, two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova, whom she defeated, 3-6 6-2 6-4.

It was the second meeting between the two compatriots, their first taking place at the Miami Open earlier this year when Kvitova had notched up an easy 6-3 6-0 win.

Kvitova, who is a bit of an idol to the 18-year old, reached the final here in 2021.

Elsewhere, Vekic advanced to the 3rd-round by edging out two-time Grand Slam champion Azarenka, 3-6 6-3 6-4, on Wednesday night.

The 22nd-ranked Croatian will face World No 5 seed Ons Jabeur for a spot in the quarter-finals.

Having begun as a second-favourite against a player who thrives on hard courts, Vekic looked like she was on her way out when she lost the first set.

A sterling comeback in the second, though, put Vekic back on track against Azarenka before she earned herself 3 break-points in the decider to clinch the win.

After having scraped past Jennifer Brady in the 1st-round, Vekic knew she was up against it when she dropped her serve 5 times in a row in the opening set, and it looked as if Azarenka was on her way to an easy win, but after trading early breaks in the second, the Croatian got her foot into the encounter and forced the door open.

In other late Wednesday results, Czech Marie Bouzkova overcame Elise Mertens from Belgium, 6-2 4-6 6-1, and Italy’s Jasmine Paolini had an easy win over Spain’s Cristina Bucsa, 6-1 6-3.

Bouzkova, ranked No 35, will face American Jessica Pegula, the No 3 seed, next, while Paolini takes on Gauff on Thursday.



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