Miami | Shocks abound as Sabalenka battles injury into round 3

Friday brought shocks in the 2nd-round of the bottom half of the women’s draw at the Miami Open Presented by Itaú, with Ons Jabeur, Caroline Garcia and Maria Sakkari among several seeds now heading for the exit doors, while Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 2, got past American Shelby Rogers despite being hampered by what appeared to be a groin injury.

Of course I want to be No 1. Of course I want to win more Grand Slams, which is normal. I think every one of us, everyone wants to do that. Probably that's why it helped me to stay focused and helped me to keep working and just keep doing my best every day. Aryna Sabalenka

4th-seeded Jabeur from Tunisia crashed out in her opening match to Russian qualifier Varvara Gracheva, 6-2 6-2, while Romania’s Sorana Cirstea upset World No 4 Garcia, 6-2 6-3, in a repeat of her Indian Wells win over the Frenchwoman last week and, in another surprise, Canadian Bianca Andreescu, the former US Open winner now ranked 31, overcame 7th seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 5-7 6-3 6-4, in a gruelling 3 hour, 3 minute battle in the early afternoon South Florida sun.

Jabeur, the finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open last year, has been working her way back from knee surgery in January and has yet to find feet again, having gone out in the 3rd-round at Indian Wells and missing the Middle East swing after suffering a knee injury at the Australian Open.

On Friday she was well short of her best against 22-year-old Gracheva, and took 2 medical visits during the 1 hour 11 minute match.

“The plan was, of course, like all matches, to be as stable as possible, to try to make her work as much points as possible, and, of course, wait for comfortable ones to attack,” said Gracheva, who has reached a career-high of 54.

She scored 11 winners to 9 unforced errors, and a 5-for-6 break point conversion rate to get her 13th main-draw win this season.

“I just probably caught this wave where I’m stable, where I always have a chance to play my game, be aggressive, cause troubles for the others by the game style,” Gracheva said about her current hot streak. “Just try to keep rolling on this way.”

Jabeur, who reached World No 2 last season, has only played 3 matches since the Australian Open in January, and was undone by 13 unforced errors in the first set against just 3 winners in that set, while, in the second, she made a brief renaissance with some magical net play to earn her only service break of the day after a medical time-out at 3-0, but more miscues allowed Gracheva to break back for 4-2, and the Russian found some fiery forehands and dictated for the rest of the clash.

Gracheva moves on to meet Polish Lucky Loser Magdalen Frech, who was a late replacement for Zhang Shuai, the No 26 seed from China, and a 4-6 6-1 6-1 winner over 18-year old wild-card Erika Andreeva from Russia.


Sorana Cirstea upset Caroline Garcia for the second time in a fortnight in Miami

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Cirstea and Garcia played a really competitive 3-setter last week at Indian Wells, and this week saw the Romanian get her second win over the Frenchwoman without loss of a set, although it was by no means a quick match.

Garcia has suffered a slump in form since losing the final of the Monterrey Open in Mexico to Croatia’s Donna Vekic, and, once again, it was the 74th ranked Cirstea who provided her downfall with the Romanian controlling proceedings for much of the match and being rewarded for her aggressive stroke play.

The biggest issue for Garcia was her serve, as she fired just 4 aces with 4 double-faults and produced a percentage of 55 %, which offered chances for Cirstea to take.

Cirstea’s next test comes in the form of Czech qualifier Karolina Muchova, who upset Zhu Lin, the No 32 seed from China, 6-4 6-2.


Bianca Andreescu came from a set down to beat Maria Sakkari in their second round match on Friday

Andreescu, the US Open winner in 2019, who eliminated Britain’s Emma Raducanu in the 1st-round, found herself losing the first set to Sakkari’s powerful stroke play, but the Canadian settled into a solid pattern of steady returns, peppered with aggressive winners as she took control of the second.

She took advantage of some loose play from Sakkari, but was unable to convert on 2 match points at the end, offering a glimmer of hope to her opponent, but finally grabbed the win when the Greek found the net.

“I felt like I was on my heels a lot of the time during the match, but I made every ball,” said Andreescu. “I fought to the end, and, I think, I played the important points just a little bit better today, but it could have gone either way today.”

Andreescu has now claimed 3 wins over Top 10 opponents since returning to the tour last April from a 6-month mental-health related hiatus.

“I think it’s just another step in gaining most of my confidence back,” added the Canadian. “I’m feeling really good on the court.

“I’m trying to be as fearless as I can be. It’s not always easy, but I feel like I’m getting there, and wins like this obviously help.”

The 22-year old admits one of her big goals is to ‘very soon’ win another Grand Slam or WTA 1000 title.

“I feel like my momentum throughout my matches has been pretty consistent,” she told reporters. “I’m not winning all the time, but I also feel, like, just, I’m feeling good.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on myself. Whenever it comes, it comes. But I would like to win very, very soon, if possible, another Grand Slam, another 1000 event. Hopefully it’s here!”

To fulfil her hopes, Andreescu must now get past another Grand Slam champion who is finding her form in Sophia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open winner, who scored another solid win over Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina, the 28th seed, 6-3 6-4.

While the odds favoured Kalinina, the result qualifies as an upset, but for Kenin, more importantly, it is a stepping stone in her come-back following injuries that nearly destroyed her career, with a straight-sets win over a tricky opponent.


World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka defeated Shelby Rogers in straight sets and is the favourite for the title in Miami

© Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Sabalenka, the No 2 seed, has her eye on the No 1 ranking after her break-through win of the Australian Open in January.

“It was an amazing moment, but time to move on,” Sabalenka said. “It’s another tournament, it wasn’t the only one goal.

“Of course I want to be No 1. Of course I want to win more Grand Slams, which is normal. I think every one of us, everyone wants to do that. Probably that’s why it helped me to stay focused and helped me to keep working and just keep doing my best every day.”

On Friday night, Sabalenka opened her Miami Open campaign by defeating American Shelby Rogers, 6-4 6-3, after taking the opening set and seemingly in full control when, in the second, she called for a medical time-out for her left leg after being broken in the first game.

Rogers held break points for a 3-0 lead as Sabalenka appeared to struggle with her movement, but the World No 2 steeled herself from 1-3 down to dominate the remainder of the match and won the final 5 games.

“For now I feel fine,” Sabalenka said after the win. “I will try to fix this problem and be ready for the next match.

“It was definitely a tough match. Super happy that, even if I was struggling with my leg a little bit, I was able to finish the match in two sets.”

Sabalenka is the highest-ranked player in the draw after defending champion Iga Swiatek withdrew ahead of the tournament with a rib injury, and subsequently, Miami affords the Belarusian a real chance eat away at the Pole’s 3,235-point lead in the WTA rankings.

Swiatek is defending over 4,000 points over the next 3 months, a result of her 2022 streak in which she won Miami, Stuttgart, Rome and Roland Garros as part of a 37-match win streak, while Sabalenka is defending only 860 points, 20 of which come across Indian Wells and Miami.

Setting aside the 52-week revolving ranking point system, the Race to the WTA Finals Leaderboard offers a clearer picture of where the players stand after the first two-and-a-half months of the season and, with two titles, including the Australian Open and the final in Indian Wells, Sabalenka sits atop the leaderboard with 3,310 points.

Indian Wells champion and Australian Open runner-up Elena Rybakina sits behind her at No 2 with 2,561 points, and Doha champion and Dubai runner-up Swiatek is 3rd with 1,810 points.

As she looks to chase down Swiatek, Sabalenka acknowledged the World No.1 has made her a better player. The two played 5 times last season, with Swiatek winning the first 4 meetings before Sabalenka finally struck back at the WTA Finals in November.

“You always have to keep improving, keep learning, because a lot of young players are coming,” Sabalenka said. “For example, Swiatek, she’s moving better. So the first matches I played against her, I felt like physically I’m not ready.

“I’m getting tired after a few points and that’s not how I’m going to win this match. So we spoke with my fitness coach to improve my fitness more. We start working even more, so I improved that part of my game.

“Every time when someone is beating you, it’s pushing you to think about what you have to improve and this is how you keep moving. If someone beat me, I go watch my match. I take some lessons from there. We improve some things and we move on.”

Despite her injury, Sabalenka saw out the match against Rogers to advance to the 3rd- round where she will face the Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova, the No 31 seed who saw her way past Russia’s Anna Blinkova, 3-6 6-4 6-3.


Belinda Bencic was an easy winner over Leylah Fernandez in Miami

© Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Elsewhere, Swiss Belinda Bencic, the No 9 seed, saw off Canadian Leylah Fernandez, 6-1 6-1, to meet Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova, the 18th seed, who had her hands full against America’s Taylor Townsend but prevailed, 6-3 5-7 6-4; while Petra Kvitova, the Czech 15th seed, was a 6-3 6-0 winner over her 18-year old compatriot Linda Noskova, and will face Croatia’s Donna Vekic, the No 22 seed, who battled past Madison Brengle, another American, 4-6 6-4 6-3.

In their first meeting, Kvitova converted 6 of her 10 break points to oust the World 51, and said: “It’s always challenging to play somebody who is young and coming up, she’s had great results. Especially a fellow Czech player, it’s always a bit tougher to play a Czech.

“But I think I managed to have a good level of my tennis. I tried to play aggressive, which I think was really the key. … She can play really aggressive and fast too, so I knew that I’d have to be the first player that’s going to push her a little bit.”

Another Czech, Karolina Pliskova seeded 17, also advanced with a 6-2 6-4 win over China’s Wang Xinyu and will meet her compatriot Marketa Vondrousova next, a 6-4 6-2 upset winner against Veronika Kudermetova, the 11th seed; while their compatriot Barbora Krejcikova, seeded 16, also enjoyed a 6-3 6-2 win against Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovic and next will take on 19th-seeded American Madison Keys, who took down her wild-card compatriot Robin Montgomery, 6-4 6-4.


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