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Italians shine in Palermo

Two Italians, Sara Errani and Elisabetta Cocciaretto, have made it into the quarter-finals at the 31st Palermo Ladies Open, the first professional tournament to be played since both the women’s and men’s tours were suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m not worrying about the ranking, I’m not thinking like that. I know that these are the last years of my career, so I’m just trying to enjoy every match and try to be relaxed to play my best. To be on the court, free of too many fears, like I’ve had the last two years… now I just try to enjoy every match. Sara Errani

Players and officials at the tournament are being tested every 4 days for COVID-19, and one player who tested positive withdrew over the weekend.

New protocols include fewer ball kids, a limited number of fans and no post-match handshakes between opponents.

Wild-carded into the main draw, Cocciaretto upset the No 6 seed, Donna Vekic, 6-2 6-4, to reach her maiden last 8 on Wednesday, while Errani took out Kristýna Plíšková, 3-6 6-4 6-3.

Cocciraretto was coming off of an already impressive result in the first round, which saw her defeat World No 45 Polona Hercog to claim both her first Top 100 win and her first WTA main draw victory.

The World No 156 continued her breakthrough run against Vekic, dominating the match across both sets to win in an hour and 35-minute battle.

“I’m so excited, I think I played a very great tennis,” Cocciaretto told the press afterwards. “She’s one of the best tennis players of the moment, so it was a pleasure to play against her.

“I’m so happy about the win, but especially so happy with how I played tonight.”

Vekic, 24, was one of the favourites to win the tournament after she produced impressive form in her opener as 3 of the 8 seeds were knocked out.

The Croatian, however, struggled from the outset against the 19-year-old Italian and had to save 3 break points just to get to 2-2 in the opening set.

Then she squandered a break point with a wild return in game 5 and after that, the errors started piling up.

When she struck a forehand wide on break point to enable Cocciaretto to go 4-2 up, her serve deserted her and the Italian broke her again to clinch the set, 6-2.

Despite the seemingly straightforward scoreline, the set took nearly an hour as both players stayed toe-to-toe for much of it.

Vekic’s service woes continued in the second set, with a double fault helping Cocciaretto to a 2-0 lead, but she struck back right away to get back on serve, and the next 6 games went to the server.

It was Cocciaretto who pulled away in the end, breaking Vekic in the final game to book her place into her first WTA Tour quarter-final.

“It’s really great [to reach my first WTA quarter-final], especially because it’s in Italy,” said Cocciaretto, 1 of 4 Italians to reach the second round. “When I was younger, I was watching this tournament on TV and watching Flavia [Pennetta] and [Sara] Errani, and I dreamed of playing this tournament for so many years.

“And now I’m here and I’m one of the players playing on TV, like when I was young. It feels very great.”

While former champion Errani advanced into the quarters on Wednesday, Jasmine Paolini bowed out in straight sets and Camila Giorgi takes on Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan on Thursday.

Cocciaretto awaits the winner between No 4 seed Anett Kontaveit and Laura Siegemund for a shot at her first WTA semi-final.

“I will be watching that match, of course,” Cocciaretto said. “This is just the fourth WTA [main draw] tournament that I’ve played, so I don’t know the other girls very well, so definitely I will be watching.


Former champion Sara Errani is regaining the form that took her to the French final in 2012

© Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Sara Errani is a former Roland Garros finalist and is showing signs of her clay-court prowess in Sicily, reaching the quarter-finals in Palermo for the 8th time after taking down Kristýna Plíšková in a thrilling comeback.

She lost the 2012 French Open final to Maria Sharapova, and has struggled to regain her form after serving a two-month ban in 2017 due to an anti-doping violation, with her ranking slipping down from a career-high of No 5 in 2013 to No 169.

“I’m a bit calmer now and I’m able to impose my game better,” Errani said. “I’m more into the matches — not more focused, but I know more of what I need to do.”

Palermo brings back good memories for Errani, who won the Sicilian tournament twice, in 2008 and 2012, finished as runner-up twice and won 3 doubles titles in Palermo.

After starting the match losing 13 points in a row, Errani showed her grit to turn around a set deficit to dispatch Plíšková 3-6 6-4 6-3.

The win extends Errani’s long history clay-court dominance, recording her tour-leading 180th career win on clay, which is more than any other active player.

“I’m not worrying about the ranking, I’m not thinking like that,” Errani told press via video chat. “I know that these are the last years of my career, so I’m just trying to enjoy every match and try to be relaxed to play my best.

“To be on the court, free of too many fears, like I’ve had the last two years… now I just try to enjoy every match.

“I want to try to of course give my best and reach my best level, but I’m not thinking too much [ahead].”

Errani looked to be in trouble early on as she was overwhelmed by the lefty Plíšková’s firepower and she quickly went down a double break to love, 3-0, struggling to get into rallies as the Czech targeted her second serve with booming returns.

The Italian saved 5 set points across 3 games as she fought to extend her stay in the set, breaking Plíšková’s serve twice in the process to make it 5-3, but the Czech lefty eventually closed it out with another break to the Errani serve, 6-3.

Coming out of the gates swinging in the second set, Errani opened it with a break, improved her first serve percentage from 61% in the first to 90%, and didn’t face a break point as she kept her lead under Plíšková’s pressure, 6-4.

Showing flashes of her vintage form, she traded breaks with Plíšková to start the decider and kept the Czech on her toes with her signature variety of slices and drop-shots, earning a crucial second break at 3-2.

Errani had to fight off 2 break-back points to maintain her lead, and weathered a short rain delay before closing out the match in 3 sets.

“During the break, I’ve been at home, I don’t know, maybe two months without going out,” the Italian recalled. “I was training physically and doing fitness at home, but I have a small home so I couldn’t play tennis for a long time.

“When they started opening the courts, I started to practice again. I didn’t stop a lot, I was trying to do something every day. But of course, it’s different playing tennis then being at home doing exercises.”

Errani, a wildcard in this year’s tournament, will take on Fiona Ferro in the last eight, who upset No 8 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 7-5 6-2, earlier in the day to advance and record her second-career Top 30 win.


Aliaksandra Sasnovich came through qualifying to reach the quarters with a win over local favourite Jasmine Paolini

© by Tullio Puglia/Getty Images

In the only other singles match played on Wednesday, former World No 30 Aliaksandra Sasnovich showed signs of her best form en route to a decisive 6-0 6-2 victory over an in-form Jasmine Paolini to reach the quarters.

“I played very well in the first set because I knew how to play against my opponent,” she said during her on-court interview. “I’ve seen a few matches of hers, and she’s a really great player.

“I think the Italian public really likes her, and I like her, too, because I like how she plays!”

Facing off for the first time, a long second game proved crucial for Sasnovich, who saved 2 break points to hold on through the opening set with the loss of just 14 points.

“It’s like I’m just waking up!” Sasnovich joked. “I’m ready. I have good fitness. I did a really great 20 weeks of fitness, so it’s enough for me to play this tournament.”

Although Paolini gave the Italian crowd something to cheer about when she got on the board early in the second set, Sasnovich was undaunted, nabbing a second break to move within sight of the finish line.




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