Despite dropping her serve 7 times, American teenage sensation Coco Gauff still managed to pull off an impressive upset of Aryna Sabalenka, the No 2 seed from Belarus, at the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics in Lexington, Kentucky on Wednesday.
It's pretty much impossible to play your best tennis for all three hours of a match. Keeping the level high throughout was pretty tough, but that's just tennis, playing in different conditions, and just starting back on tour. I'm not too upset with how I played; I'm most proud of how I handled myself, staying composed on the pressure points. Coco Gauff
Gauff scored her second Top 20 win of the year in a three-set thriller, 7-6(4) 2-6 6-4, to reach her first WTA quarter-final of the year.
The win, which will see Gauff’s enter the Top 50, was just her third career Top 20 victory following triumphs over Kiki Bertens in Linz last year and Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open in January.
Playing her first tournament in the coronavirus-disrupted season since she stunned defending champion Osaka in Melbourne, Gauff lined up a quarter-final clash with eighth-seeded Tunisian Ons Jabeur, a 3-6 6-2 6-4 winner over Olga Govortsova.
“I’m just happy to have pulled it through today,” Gauff said after coming out on top in a see-saw battle that lasted 2 hours and 24 minutes.
“I think my mentality pushed me to win,” she said after the match. “We’re both playing good tennis, and had our ups and downs in the match.
“At the end of the day, it came down to a couple close points.”
The 16-year-old American was broken 7 times and appeared frustrated at her service game as she hit 10 double faults, but she stayed the course to beat the Belarusian who had 14 double faults of her own.
“It’s pretty much impossible to play your best tennis for all three hours of a match” Gauff added. “Keeping the level high throughout was pretty tough, but that’s just tennis, playing in different conditions, and just starting back on tour.
“I’m not too upset with how I played; I’m most proud of how I handled myself, staying composed on the pressure points.”
Gauff had navigated through a tricky two-setter against fellow American Caroline Dolehide to book a first meeting with Sabalenka, who won her third career Premier 5 title at the Qatar Total Open before the WTA tour was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sabalenka, who was pushed to three sets by Madison Brengle in her first round match, enjoyed the stronger start, pressing Gauff to 4 break points before nabbing the first break of the match.
Gauff responded impeccably, flipping the deficit into a 5-2 lead, serving for the set one game later.
Undaunted, the Belarusian swung the momentum back her way as she reeled off 4 games in a row before Gauff forced a tiebreak.
Gauff rolled out to a 5-0 lead in the breaker, ultimately sealing the set with an impressive forehand put-away.
Sabalenka took a 5-2 lead in the second, and held off a challenge from Gauff to level the match at a set apiece.
The third set opened with a string of service breaks, Sabalenka twice clawing back a break, but Gauff gained a break to lead 5-4 and served out the match with an angled forehand winner.
“It was all about staying calm and composed, making her play balls,” Gauff said. “In the second set, I hit more double faults and errors, so my goal for the third was to change that.”
Gauff, who won her first WTA title at Linz last year, said she had room to improve on her serve.
“I definitely served better in my first match than today, but you’re going to have good and bad days,” she said, “and I like to go for my serves, so that’s the give and take.”
There was a bit of confusion when Gauff and her father, Cori, got into a discussion with the chair umpire about what sort of coaching is allowed under new WTA rules.
Coaches are now allowed to speak with their players during a match but must do so from their seat and only when the player is on the same side of the net.
“I think it was just a confusion on the rules,” Gauff said afterwards. “I didn’t really understand the rules to be honest.
“I didn’t really get clarification on the rules until after she [the chair umpire] called my previous match.
“I was just told the coaches can’t leave their seat, so I was talking to my dad and he was talking back to me.
“She told me, ‘You have to be discreet in your coaching.’ I didn’t really understand. I guess ‘discreet’ can be interpreted in different ways by different refs.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure of the rules, but I guess I now know you can coach, but you have to be discreet about it.”
Standing between Gauff and a spot in the semi-finals is rising Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, who opened play on Wednesday by outlasting former World No 35 Olga Govortsova in three sets.
Jabeur, seeded 8th, shook off the qualifier from Belarus, 3-6 6-2 6-4, after a slow start.
A player whose dynamic game relies on precise timing and shot selection, the Tunisian was struggling in the early exchanges against Govortsova’s powerful groundstrokes, but Jabeur recovered strongly after dropping the first set to win in an hour and 50 minutes.
“My game was there, I know that I could mix it up a little bit and really bother her with my game, but I just didn’t find my rhythm in the beginning,” Jabeur told the media later. “But I’m glad that I served good in the times that I needed to serve good – a couple of aces were really important for me to win my service games.
“She was trying to be more aggressive at the end, when I was winning 5-2. That was a good match, I’m really proud of myself that I pulled out the win.”
Jabeur is through to her third quarter-final of the year after starting the season with a historic run to the Australian Open final eight, backing it up in Doha before the WTA tour was put on pause.
As a result, she comes into Lexington ranked at a career-high World No 39.
“I’m not the kind of player who can stay five months without playing and then find the rhythm very easily,” Jabeur admitted. “I’m usually slow to come back, but I took this opportunity to change that. Even mentally, more than on the court.
“Obviously I didn’t come back the same as when I stopped, but it’s good enough to start. I’m really proud that I pulled out these two matches here.”
Jabeur needed a few games to settle into the match, but her opponent Govortsova wasted no time in taking an early 2-0 lead.
The 31-year-old Belarusian, who returned to the tour after maternity leave in 2018, extended her lead to 4-0 as Jabeur struggled to find her rhythm.
She wrangled one of the breaks back, but she couldn’t break through as Govortsova took the first set, 6-3.
It was the opposite story in the second, as Jabeur raised her level.
After exchanging breaks with Govortsova to take a 2-1 lead, Jabeur reeled off the next 4 of 5 games to wrap up that set, 6-2.
Both players were dialled in during a tight third set, with nothing to separate them as they traded breaks for 2-2.
Jabeur broke away, reeling off 4 games in a row to serve for the match at 5-2, but Govortsova made a final push as she broke her opponent to make it 5-4 and extend her stay in the match.
The Tunisian slammed the door with more sharp shotmaking to take the victory after nearly two hours on court.
“At the beginning, I was trying to play more aggressive, but obviously I was taking more risk and missing,” Jabeur said. “I felt like I had the game to win today, but sometimes it was not right there.
“But I never thought that I could lose this match, somehow I believed in myself that I could come back and win it.”
Elsewhere steadily-rising Czech Marie Bouzkova, the World No 48, saw off 21-year-old Russian Ana Blinkova, 6-4 6-2, to line up a clash with American Jennifer Brady, who toppled 6th-seeded Magda Linette of Poland, 6-2 6-3.
Bouzkova, who dispatched Johanna Konta in the first round, 6-4 6-4, battled through her two long sets that lasted an hour and three quarters with a trusted partner, her enormous thermos that she has had for years.
With Bouzkova having become a major tour-level threat over the past year, some thoughtsher bottle was in need of a recognisable name.
“Juggy,” the Tennis Channel team suggested at first, but then on Twitter, commentator Brett Haber suggested #BouzieBottle, to which Bouzkova enthusiastically agreed.
She finished the match in thrilling fashion, ending a 23-stroke cat-and-mouse rally with a running forehand pass.
Thursday’s second-round action will include the 31st career matchup between Serena Williams and her older sister, Venus.