Indian Wells | Sabalenka survives but seeds fall in the desert

The BNP Paribas Open on Saturday saw the first appearance of World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who saved match points before prevailing in a decisive tiebreak over Peyton Stearns, and Maria Sakkari came from a set down to see off Diane Shnaider, but 8 other seeds made their early exits, including Jessica Pegula, Zheng Qinwen, Luidmila Samsonova and Sorana Cirstea.

I’m happy with the mental fight. It wasn’t my best tennis, but it’s not about how you show up on your good days, it’s how you show up on your bad ones, and I’m happy with how I showed up today. Coco Gauff

Also, Coco Gauff, the 3rd seed, walked a tightrope against Clara Burel but came through on a match breaker, while Daria Kasatkina, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Garcia were among the seeds to make it into the 3rd-round, alongside Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu, who led 4-0 when her opponent, Dayana Yastremska, retired at Indian Wells.

Sabalenka was pushed to the limit in her tussle with Stearns, a young American ranked 64, against whom she struggled from the outset, but the Belarusian managed to hang in, and saved 4 match points to defeat Stearns, 6-7(2) 6-2 7-6(6).

“I’m super happy that I didn’t give up on that score, and I was really pushing myself hard, even though I didn’t play my best tennis and she was crushing it like crazy,” said Sabalenka, who rolled her ankle during the intense evening struggle, but said she will be ready for her next match. “I was just like trying to stay in the game, and keep fighting for every point.

“But this match will definitely go into the book of craziest matches and the best matches of my career.

“Now I feel OK, we’ll see tomorrow. But I have a great team, and I’m pretty sure they will take care of it so for the next match I will be ready.”

In their first career meeting, Stearns and Sabalenka saved the dramatics for the deciding set, and, after taking advantage of a poor outing by the Belarusian, the American broke for a 5-4 lead.

Serving for the win, Stearns built a 40-0 lead before Sabalenka struck a clean backhand winner to stay in the match.

Two more match points came and went with tight errors from the American, who had come within a point of notching her first Top 10 victory.

Sabalenka saved 4 match points in all, before breaking Stearns to level at 5-5.

“The first match point, somehow I returned the crazy serve, put it back, she didn’t expect that,” Sabalenka said. “I made a great backhand crosscourt.

“Then the second one, I kind of start feeling she’s getting tight, and probably this is good opportunity for me to stay in the match.”

Stearns responded by breaking Sabalenka in the longest game of the match, a 6-deuce tug-o-war that the 22-year old American won after finally converting on her 5th break point, but, once again, she failed to serve out the win, and the match headed into a deciding breaker.

Having dodged every attempt by Stearns to land the knock-out blow, Sabalenka earned the mini-break at 4-2 and held 3 match points of her own before the American levelled at 6 points all, but the No 2 seed closed out the match 2 points later, when Stearns put a backhand long, and the Australian Open champion roared her relief after 2 hours and 53 minutes of uncertainty.


Emma Raducanu won the first 4 games before her 2nd-round opponent Dayana Yastremska retired ill on Saturday at Indian Wells

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Sabalenka, who finished the match with 40 winners to 49 unforced errors, including 10 aces and 9 double-faults, while Stearns struck 29 winners to 34 miscues, was the runner-up to Elena Rybakina in the California desert last year, and booked a 3rd-round meeting with 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu.

The Briton advanced after just 4 games of her 2nd-round match against Dayana Yastremska, when the Ukrainian was forced to retire due to illness, sending Raducanu through after only 21 minutes of play.

Raducanu, a wild-card entry, was leading 4-0 in the first set when the 2024 AO semi-finalist stopped and clutched her stomach. Their lone previous meeting, at 2022 Portoroz, also ended with a Yastremska retirement.

Into the Indian Wells 3rd-round for a third straight year, Raducanu’s best run here came last year, when she reached the Round of 16 before falling to World No 1 Iga Swiatek.

As Raducanu continues her come-back from surgery on both wrists and her left ankle, this win ensures she remains inside the Top 300.

Currently ranked No 261, she has successfully defended 65 of the 120 ranking points she received for reaching the 4th round here last year, regardless of the unfortunate circumstances of her opponent’s withdrawal.

Wimbledon champion and 7th seed Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic also withdrew from the WTA 1000 tournament on Saturday, citing personal reasons, and sending Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk into the 4th-round.


Coco Gauff, the 3rd seed, was stretched by Clara Burel, but prevailed in the match breaker at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Meanwhile, former 2022 Indian Wells finalist, Maria Sakkari, the 9th seed from Greece, held off 19-year old Diana Shnaider from Russia, 5-7 6-4 6-0, from a set down, and will face No 20 seed Caroline Garcia from France next, who was a 6-1 2-6 6-3 winner over Bulgaria’s Viktorija Tomova.

No 3 seed Coco Gauff overcame a 2-5 third-set deficit against unseeded Frenchwoman Clara Burel, to emerge with a hard-fought 2-6 6-3 7-6(4) win.

“I think, for me, it’s just getting through that match definitely meant a lot,” she said in her post-match press conference. “… could have easily thrown in the towel. But honestly, I was just telling myself, like, win or lose, I don’t want to have any regrets on the court. I want to be, like, I gave myself the best opportunity to win, and I did that.”

Gauff came out tight, spraying errors around the court and double-faulting on 2 break points in a poor first set that Burel wrapped up with an un-returnable serve.

The reigning US Open champion stepped up her serving in the second, though, and moved into the court to take time away from her opponent, using her speed to race down a drop-shot and level the contest at a set apiece.

Burel refused to go away under the sunny skies of the California desert, and broke for a 2-0 lead when Gauff’s forehand sailed long.

Wasting 2 break points in the next game, Gauff was broken again as Burel suddenly found herself leading 4-0 in the decider, but, serving for the match at 5-3, it was the 44th-ranked Frenchwoman’s turn to tighten up, and the 19-year old American, who turns 20 next Wednesday, pounced on her short balls and tentative serves.

Gauff stayed aggressive in the tiebreak, sealing the win after a long rally ended with Burel misfiring wide.

“I’m happy with the mental fight,” Gauff said later. “It wasn’t my best tennis, but it’s not about how you show up on your good days, it’s how you show up on your bad ones, and I’m happy with how I showed up today.”

Gauff will face Lucia Bronzetti in the 3rd-round after the Italian beat Anhelina Kalinina, the No 32 seed from Ukraine, 6-3 6-4.

Her doubles partner and 5th seed, Jessica Pegula, was unable to stage a come-back of her own against Russia’s Anna Blinkova, and fell, 6-2 3-6 6-3.

The American had beaten Blinkova in 3 sets at the San Diego Open last week, and it was the Russian who returned the favour, thanks to some outstanding serving.

Blinkova lines up Diane Parry, another Frenchwoman, who upset Leylah Fernandez, the 29th seed from Canada, 7-5 5-7 6-2.

Their first meeting proved to be a 2-hour and 57-minute marathon, in which the 21-year old, who is ranked 61, outlasted her Canadian opponent.


Caroline Dolehide took down 2-time Indian Wells champion Victoria Azarenka in 3 sets on Saturday

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Austin champion Yuan Yue from China extended her win streak to 6 matches after upsetting her compatriot Zheng Qinwen, the World No 8, 6-4 6-3, to to post first Top 10 win.

The 25-year old, ranked 49, will take on Caroline Dolehide from the USA, who pulled off an upset of her own, getting past Victoria Azarenka in 3 sets.

Dolehide’s career is on the rise, after having reached the final of the Guadalajara 1000 last September, but the power hitter had lost 5 straight matches ahead of Indian Wells.

Meanwhile, Azarenka, the No 27 seed from Belarus and 2-time Indian Wells champion, had only lost her opening match in the desert once in her last 7 visits, and that was last season.

Although she almost rallied in the final set, pulling back from 1-5 down to 3-5, and holding 2 game points in the last game, Dolehide ultimately prevailed, 7-5 2-6 6-3, after 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Daria Kasatkina, the 10th-seeded Russian, successfully weathered another Frenchwoman’s efforts, Oceane Dodin, 6-3 7-6(5), to set up a Last 32 meeting with 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, after the American upset Sorana Cirstea, the 19th seed from Romania, 6-0 7-5.

Also through is Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian 16th seed, who eventually outpaced Czech Katerina Siniakova, 6-3 2-6 6-1, and she will take on the No 23 seed, America’s Emma Navarro, who had to go the distance against another from Ukraine, Lesia Tsurenko, 4-6 7-5 7-5.


Naomi Osaka is determined to enjoy her come-back and upset Liudmila Samsonova, the 14th seed, on Saturday

© Michael Owens/Getty Images

Elsewhere, playing the 5th tournament of her return to tour after her 2023 maternity leave, former BNP Paribas Open champion Osaka took an hour and 37 minutes to battle past Liudmilla Samsonova, the 14th seed from Russia, in their first meeting, 7-5 6-3.

“I think, for me, I just want to have a lot more fun on the court,” Osaka said, after her win. “In Australia I was really hard on myself, and I found myself not really celebrating just being on the court.

“So I think in this tournament, I just really wanted to emphasise that I don’t expect myself to win every match, but I want to have fun, and enjoy the moments while I can. ”

The Japanese, who was the champion here in 2018, continues to build momentum behind her powerful ground game, and she positively beamed as she waved to the crowd after sealing the win.

Osaka, who only returned in January, will next face 24th seed Elise Mertens from Belgium in the 3rd-round, who was a 6-1 6-4 winner over China’s Wang Xinyu.


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