A 32-year old, unseeded Romanian, Sorana Cirstea, stunned Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 2, in straight sets on Thursday to reach the semi-finals of the Miami Open Presented by Itaú, where she awaits the winner of the last quarter-final between Petra Kvitova and Ekaterina Alexandrova, which was rained off and will be played on Thursday.
Yeah, it definitely wasn't my best match. I was struggling a lot with the conditions, like heat. I felt like balls were flying too much and I couldn't find control, controlling the ball. Yeah, was just trying to do my best till the last point. I just couldn't adjust to these conditions unfortunately. Next time I'll try better. Aryna Sabalenka
Cirstea produced a near-flawless performance to dispatch the Australian Open champion, 6-4 6-4, after an hour and 26 minutes on court.
“I am a bit speechless,” admitted Cirstea, the World No 74. “I came out knowing that it was going to be a really tough match.
“Aryna hits so hard, so I knew I had to hold my ground and I am very, very happy with my performance today and it’s a bit unexpected to be honest.”
Cirstea has yet to drop a set in Miami, and now is set to play in a WTA 1000 semi-final for the first time in 10 years, a feat that she credits to her coach, Thomas Johansson.
It is a resurgence for the 32-year-old, who has beaten World No 5 Caroline Garcia twice in the last fortnight, and former Top 20 players Karolina Muchova and Marketa Vondrousova in her current run.
“I guess people like to keep count of the age, the years, the results, but I never do that,” Cirstea said. “I just mind my own business, work hard, do my thing, believe in my game, work with my coach Thomas Johansson – we just started in December and, so far, I think it’s going great.
“I’m not defined by numbers. I’m just trying to keep my head down, and work hard.”
The Romanian broke Sabalenka in the first game of each set, and ended up earning the deciding break later in both, taking a lead she never relinquished at 4-4 in the opener, and 3-3 in the second set, while, to win the match, she served out the win from 15-40 down.
The Belarusian, who was struggling with a groin injury earlier in the tournament, briefly turned up the heat and looked to have found her way back into contention before letting it slip, squandering a break point chance while leading 3-2, and then double-faulting when facing a break point in the next game as Cirstea forged ahead 4-3, and never looked back.
While Cirstea only made 49% of her first serves, she still produced 7 aces and struck 16 winners to a tidy 9 unforced errors, as Sabalenka racked up 21 in each category.
More importantly, the Romanian created havoc on the Sabalenka serve, winning over 50% of those points, although she also was helped by the Belarusian’s 6 double-faults.
The last unseeded player left standing in the draw, Cirstea is only the third person to beat Sabalenka this year.
She arrived in Miami fresh off a run to the Indian Wells quarter-final, and held firm against Sabalenka’s power and relentless aggression, holding her ground to pull off the biggest upset of the tournament.
Cirstea, a former World No 21, will face either Petra Kvitova or Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semi-final for a place in Sunday’s final.
Evening action at the Miami Open on Wednesday, though, was washed out and postponed without a ball being struck between the 15th-seeded Czech and No 18 seed from Russia.
The last remaining doubles quarter-final, pitting No 2 seeds Coco Gauff & Jessica Pegula against No 6 seeds Storm Hunter & Elise Mertens, was interrupted and also postponed, with Hunter & Mertens leading 3-1 in the first set.
Meanwhile, Sabalenka, who has been in stunning form this year, and entered the match as the favourite to win the title, was left to rue her 3rd loss in 23 matches this season.
“Yeah, it definitely wasn’t my best match,” she said. “I was struggling a lot with the conditions, like heat. I felt like balls were flying too much and I couldn’t find control, controlling the ball.
“Yeah, was just trying to do my best till the last point. I just couldn’t adjust to these conditions unfortunately. Next time I’ll try better.”
Nevertheless, Sabalenka remains upbeat about maintaining her form in the clay court season after her shock Miami Open exit.
“Yeah, I think the key would be just to focus on myself, don’t think about social media, don’t think about the people, expectations,” the 24-year told the media. “Just focus on myself. Just do my thing, and I believe that if I’m going to play the same level or even better, wins will come. I just have to keep working hard, yeah, keep moving forward.
“There was some tough lessons in the first part of the season. I’ll just learn, reset, and start working again from the beginning.
“Yeah, do my best to make sure I bring my best tennis on the clay court season,” she added. “I was struggling a lot with the conditions.”
The Belarusian is next scheduled to compete at the WTA 500 event in South Carolina, which begins on 3 April, and where Sabalenka is among the 5 Top 10 players planning to kick off their 2023 clay-court campaigns at the Credit One Charleston Open.
The World No 2 heads the initial entry list, which also boasts No 3 Jessica Pegula, No 4 Ons Jabeur, No 8 Daria Kasatkina and No 9 Belinda Bencic.
Bencic is the defending champion in Charleston, while Kasatkina is also a former champion, capturing the trophy in 2017, while other former champions on the entry list include Sloane Stephens (2016), Madison Keys (2019) and Veronika Kudermetova (2021).
Jelena Ostapenko, who finished as the runner-up in 2017 before winning Roland Garros later that year, is also in the field, while more entrants include former World No 1 and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez.
2023 Australian Open semi-finalist Magda Linette, former Top 10 players Paula Badosa and Danielle Collins, rising Czech teen Linda Fruhvirtova and Charleston native Shelby Rogers will be in the mix this year as well.