There were mixed fortunes under the blazing hot sun of Berlin on Friday when Alizé Cornet edged out Garbiñe Muguruza, Liudmila Samsonova upset Madison Keys, and both Belinda Bencic and Victoria Azarenka prevailed over Ekaterina Alexandrova and Jessica Pegula respectively to reach the semi-finals of the bett1open.
I definitely don't like playing her. There's not so much rhythm, she's very aggressive player, it's tough to stay in the rally. I would say I'm more relieved [to get through]. It didn't even feel like a third set tiebreaker - it was really about serving and returning. I'm really happy I stayed tough today. Belinda Bencic
Cornet, currently ranked No 63 in the world, dug deep to seal a 4-6 6-3 7-6(5) upset of Muguruza, Spain’s two-time Grand Slam winner and former world No 1, who is now ranked 13 and was seeded 6th for the title.
It took the 31-year old Frenchwoman 2 hours 40 minutes in 33 degree heat to get past the former Wimbledon champion for her first appearance in the semi-finals of a WTA tournament for nearly two years, and her first on grass.
She will play Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, ranked 12th in the world, on Saturday for a place in the final.
Cornet provided the most drama of the day, saving a match point in the 10th game of the 3rd set and squandering 4 chances of her own in the tiebreak before finally prevailing.
“It was a long match with a lot of emotion, especially in the tiebreak,” said Cornet afterwards. “I can’t believe I made it at the end.
“She’s a champion, she never gives up. I should have gone for a it a bit more, I was waiting for a mistake and I was a bit tight – it’s normal. But I was very resilient too, I was always behind in the score in the third set but I kept grinding, I kept fighting to the end and it’s a really nice victory.
“I had a really tough clay season, I couldn’t play well and I don’t know why – but to play well on grass, it’s unexpected but beautiful.”
Cornet had lost both of her previous completed matches against Muguruza, and she competed with tremendous fortitude, and balanced keeping her own game watertight with giving the Spaniard awkward angles and spins, finishing with 19 winners to 20 unforced errors, compared to her opponent’s 34 winners and 29 unforced errors.
Remarkably, there were only 6 break points over the course of the match, 4 of which were converted, with Cornet impressively taking her only two opportunities.
After an opening exchange of breaks as both players settled into the match, the first two sets would be decided by one key game.
In the first, Cornet threw in a loose game of 3 unforced errors and a double-fault at 2-2, and Muguruza did not relinquish the lead, closing out the set with a delicate drop-shot put-away.
The Frenchwoman rebounded at the start of the second as Muguruza lapsed into errors, leaping out to a 3-0 lead and successfully preserving it to force a decider.
Muguruza took an off-court medical timeout for a blister on her foot ahead of the third set, but she successfully passed Cornet’s attempts to test her movement on resumption, and there were no break point opportunities through the first 9 games.
It was the former World No 1 who made the first breakthrough, chasing down a drop-shot to flick a fabulous winner to reach match point at 5-4, but Cornet came out on top of a bruising baseline exchange to save it after Muguruza netted a forehand.
In the ensuing tiebreak, Muguruza got off to a nightmare start, committing 5 unforced errors in the first 7 points to fall behind 1-6.
She didn’t lose quietly, though, and saved the first 4 match points with 3 clean winners and a vicous backhand that was as good as one, sending Cornet flying onto the grass as she desperately attempted to retrieve it.
Cornet’s defence, however, paid dividends on the 5th and another pulsating rally ended with Muguruza tapping a lame drop-shot into the net.
For a place in Sunday’s final Cornet will play Belinda Bencic, the 5th seed, who booked her semi-final slot after surviving 15 aces from Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova to win 6-4 4-6 7-6(4).
The Swiss needed to be equally resilient against a player to whom she had lost to twice in their previous 3 encounters, and there were few extended rallies in the encounter, with both serving at their best and racking up easy points.
Alexandrova’s 15 aces took her season total to 168, but Bencic wasn’t far behind with 9 aces.
The Russian went up a break twice in the first set, but couldn’t find her first serve when it mattered and she only was able to win 1 of her 12 second serve points.
Aptly, the last of those was on set point, as Bencic sealed a run of 4 consecutive games by hammering a return straight at Alexandrova’s feet.
The Russian improved her second serve in the second set, winning 6 of 12 points as a visibly frustrated Bencic paid the price for consecutive double-faults, which paved the way to an early break and her first serve percentage plummeted to 32% and a ratio of 5 winners to 11 unforced errors.
Ricocheting a sequence of breathtaking backhand winners down the line, Alexandrova was unable to take 3 set points in the 8th game, saved by a Bencic ace.
The Swiss came within 2 points of the match in the subsequent game, but 4 Alexandrova aces were too much to overcome.
In the ensuing tiebreak, Bencic rose to the occasion, ending a rare pair of lengthy rallies with forehand winners to win the first 2 points and never relinquishing her lead before sealing her second match point as Alexandrova put an attempted wrong-footer wide.
“I definitely don’t like playing her,” admitted Bencic afterwards. “There’s not so much rhythm, she’s very aggressive player, it’s tough to stay in the rally.
“I would say I’m more relieved [to get through]. It didn’t even feel like a third set tiebreaker – it was really about serving and returning. I’m really happy I stayed tough today.”
Bencic, who let her frustration show during the second set, also spoke about channelling her emotions into her game.
“I have to get mad,” she said. “When I’m mad, I play better, I’m just hitting the ball. So I’m trying to get mad on court.”
Getting mad has moved Bencic into her second semi-final of the year following Adelaide in February, and 5th of her career on grass, while Alexandrova falls to 1-4 in quarter-final matches in 2021.
Meanwhile, another former World No 1and two-time Grand Slam title winner, Victoria Azarenka, defeated Jessica Pegula and avenged her loss to the American at the Australian Open, 6-2 5-7 6-4.
“I’m really happy that I made it out in the third set,” Azarenka said. “I played really well in the beginning of the match, the first set and in the middle of the second set.
“Then she went for a couple of shots, and I felt like I slowed down and was doing too much of repeating the same mistakes. But I’m glad that I was able to turn it around.”
As darkness fell in Berlin, Azarenka gritted out the tough win over the World No 26, converting 6 of her 9 break points and winning just over half the points returning the Pegula second service.
The Belarusian 7th seed returned aggressively from the get-go, breaking to love in the first game of the match and continued on from there, claiming an insurance break to lead 5-2 before serving it out.
Azarenka’s momentum extended into the second as she again broke service in the first game and powered her way to a 4-2 lead, but a double-fault at 4-3 allowed Pegula her first break of the day, and the American took advantage to inch ahead in the set, taking her chance at 6-5 to level proceedings.
“Matches on grass can go fast, one or two breaks and it’s already more difficult,” Azarenka said.
Four straight service breaks opened the decider, but Azarenka took the lead for good after aggressive forays into the forecourt set up triple break point at 3-3, culminating in a double-fault by Pegula to drop serve.
Azarenka next faces Russia’s Liudmila Samsonova who beat American Madison Keys 7-6(4) 2-6 7-6(0) earlier on Friday afternoon and continued her stellar run out of qualifying as the biggest surprise of the week.
It was the 3rd straight match of the day decided by a final-set tiebreak, and it was Samsonova who overcame the former Top 10 player, booking a spot in the second WTA singles semi-final of her career, and her first at WTA 500-level or higher.
The World No 106 needed 2 hours 24 minutes to notch one of her biggest career wins yet, winning 83 percent of points off of her overwhelming first serve to pull through a number of tough holds, eventually eking out the win after a commanding 3rd-set tiebreak.