Madrid | Osaka and Kvitova suffer upsets. Halep eyes No.1 ranking
Thursday’s match day flipped the cards in Madrid, as both the WTA No.1 and the defending champion fell.
K. Bertens (Hol, 7) d. P. Kvitova (Cze, 2) 6-2 6-3
Kiki Bertens finally exacted her revenge on good friend Petra Kvitova, winning the rematch of the 2018 final. Kvitova had soared into the quarter-finals, but looked surprisingly heavy in her movements on Thursday night, often getting caught off guard by Bertens’s deep returns. The Dutch player is an extremely solid player (she has recently been described as the second-best clay specialist after Halep), and broke the Czech’s powerful serve on five occasions.
Kvitova’s tight-angled cross-court forehands didn’t do the same damage as they did to Caroline Garcia, given Bertens’s much greater mobility, while the Dutch’s deep and heavy returns often caught her off guard, and her hooked forehand often. The world No.2 came under threat in the third game, narrowly escaping, but couldn’t do the same in the fifth, ultimately giving way to the seventh seed, who broke again with some well-placed drop shots to serve the set away in 34 minutes.
The pattern continued in the second set, every Bertens return landing within inches of the baseline, and preventing Kvitova from seizing the lead in the rally, or even from hitting cleanly into the court. Kiki broke straight away, and, despite Kvitova’s counter-break in the sixth game, took away the reigning champion’s serve twice more to reach the semi-finals, ending on a crafty drop&passing forehand combination. She will now face Sloane Stephens, whereas Kvitova will bleed 820 points, losing the chance to take the top spot until at least after the French Open.
B. Bencic (Swi, 18) d. N. Osaka (Jap, 1) 3-6 6-2 7-5
Speaking of unexpected turns, world No.1 Naomi Osaka wasted a 5-4 lead in the deciding set against resurgent Belinda Bencic, who has now won five time out of five against top five opposition in 2019, including twice against the Japanese.
Bencic isn’t a natural on clay, relying on anticipation to to turn her opponents’ pace against them, but has made incredible strides in recent times, after a two years in the making comeback following wrist surgery in May 2017.
Osaka was looking self-assured, as she did on Wednesday against Sasnovich, but after winning the first set following a Bencic double fault in the eighth game, she suddenly lost focus, as it had happened in her second rounder against Sara Sorribes Tormo, and got broken in the second game, and again in the sixth after she had managed to get herself back in the contest. The Swiss then pushed for more, and hit a stunning backhand winner to take the contest into a decider.
In the third set, things got really heated: Osaka broke in the fifth game, and held on following six deuces on her own serve. Generally, wasted opportunities take their toll, but Bencic stayed solid, and, when Osaka went to serve for the match in the tenth game, she upped her focus, and started hitting return winners to break to love. Unlike her, Osaka took the hit, and conceded defeat, scoring just one point in her final serve game, and ending on a backhand unforced. She most likely paid for her relative inexperience on clay, but will most likely be among the French Open contenders anyway. Bencic, who has claimed to have hated clay for a long time, will now face someone who knows a thing or two about the surface, Roland Garros defending champion Simona Halep.
In the remaining matches, Simona Halep had to work for a win against in-form Ashleigh Barty in just over an hour and a half, wasting leads in both sets before finally figuring out her opponent’s variations – she will now re-take the No.1 throne if she wins the tournament. Finally, Sloane Stephens downed Petra Martic behind an outstanding serving performance, putting 83% of her first serves into play and winning 76% of those:
S. Halep (Rom, 3) d. A. Barty (Aus, 9) 7-5 7-5
S. Stephens (USA, 8) d. P. Martic (Cro, 36) 6-4 6-3