Top seed Garbiñe Muguruza and Ons Jabeur, the 7th seed, both advanced safely into the quarter-finals of the Sydney Tennis Classic on Wednesday, with wins over Ekaterina Alexandrova and Petra Kvitova respectively.
I was happy I stood there and said, 'Listen, I'm still serving, I'm still here, and the set is not over’. To manage the anxiety, playing the first match of the year, and you want to win, and you want to start with the right foot, just managing those moments. Garbiñe Muguruza
For Muguruza, in her first match of the season, she staved off a late comeback attempt by Russia’s Alexandrova to win 6-1 7-6(4).
“We’ve played many times. I remember long matches, physical matches. I’m expecting a similar match,” Muguruza said.
The Spaniard started 2022 as she ended 2021, with a straight-sets win, but she had to find her best tennis to earn it, saving 5 set points in a thrilling second set.
“I think I started very good, playing the right way, making the shots,” Muguruza said in her post match press conference. “I feel she made a couple unforced errors very quickly, so that allowed me to escape in the score and close that first set very quickly.
“The second set was probably was going to be tougher, maybe she started to play better.
“It got more equal, and I managed to save those set points that were very important and put pressure on her and force the tiebreak, because once you’re in the tiebreak, you feel like anything can happen.
“I just stood strong there.”
Muguruza won the first 12 points of the match and wrapped up the one-set lead in just 25 minutes, but Alexandrova upped her game over the next hour, breaking the Spaniard to lead 2-0 and staying strong on serve to keep the lead for much of the second set.
Muguruza stared down all 5 set points in the 10th game of the set, denying Alexandrova at 15-40 and 3 subsequent chances past deuce.
While the Russian was still in with a chance of forcing a final set in the ensuing games, Muguruza raced out to a 6-1 lead in the breaker, and then held on for the 86-minute win.
“I was happy I stood there and said, ‘Listen, I’m still serving, I’m still here, and the set is not over’,” she said.
“To manage the anxiety, playing the first match of the year, and you want to win, and you want to start with the right foot, just managing those moments.”
For a spot in the semi-finals, Muguruza will face Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, who took out Elise Mertens from Belgium, 6-3 6-4, in an efficient 71 minutes,
“We’ve played many times. I remember long matches, very physical matches,” Muguruza said. “So I’m expecting a similar match, although her game, it’s long rallies and baseline player.
“I expect that that’s going to be a long, tight match.”
Muguruza holds a slim 3-2 head-to-head advantage, and all but one of the pair’s all-time matches have stretched to 3 sets.
Kasatkina, the World No 26, needed an hour and 11 minutes to defeat 20th-ranked Mertens to post another quality result in 2022 after reaching the semi-finals at Melbourne Summer Set 2 before falling to eventual champion Amanda Anisimova.
Meanwhile, Jabeur, the World No 10, got past Kvitova, 6-4 6-4, for her first win over the two-time Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic in 4 meetings, fighting back from a break down in both sets to prevail on Ken Rosewall Arena.
The Czech heads to next week’s Australian Open hoping to improve on her runner-up finish in 2019, and while she showed glimpses of the power game that can overwhelm opponents, she was broken 5 times by Jabeur.
“Finally, after so many losses against her,” Jabeur told reporters. “It’s not easy to return those powerful shots, but I’ve been prepared and I really wanted to win. So I went for it.
“I learned from my losses against her, especially the last one in Cincinnati. To be honest, I’m glad that the court wasn’t super fast. It kind of helped me a little bit.”
After winning just 3 games in her last match against Kvitova, a 6-1 6-2 defeat at the Western & Southern Open last summer, Jabeur went back to the drawing board with her next match against the Czech in mind.
“[This win] was very important,” she said. “That’s why, for some reason I was talking to my coach about it, that I wanted to win at least once against her.
“She’s the kind of player that puts a lot of pressure on me that I don’t particularly like, and that gave me the courage to work on this style of a game.
“Cincinnati was a very tough loss for me, but she played unbelievable.
“I’m someone that doesn’t like to go home without any solutions, without knowing what should I do later. … So that helps me to be better on the court and to get back and play better when you play someone that plays like that.
“I played well. I could have played better but I think I had a goal in my head and I went for it. It’s very important that I managed to really do what I wanted to do.”
Jabeur’s first win against Kvitova didn’t come without its problems, though, and she had to rally from 3-1 down in each set to make the win, having never previously landed a set in all her prior defeats at the hands of the left-handed Czech.
“I think I’m playing better.” Jabeur added. “As a player, I’m much better on the court. I’m more confident.
“I practiced more and more on those shots. I’m getting better on this one. Been trying to put every ball in and more ball in to make it difficult for her. It gave me confidence on the court to kind of make sure to play my shots.”
Up next for Jabeur is Anett Kontaveit, the 4th seed from Estonia, who made short work of Romanian qualifier Elena-Gabriela Ruse, 6-3 6-1, to reach the quarters.
“I’m very happy with the win,” Kontaveit said in her post-match press conference. “First it was a little tougher, but then I felt like I got my game going a little bit more and I felt like I was playing better as the match went on.”
Playing before the rains hit Sydney, it took her an hour and 16 minutes to dispatch Ruse.
Kontaveit won 29 of her last 33 matches last year, including 4 WTA singles titles, to burst into the Top 10, while Ruse made a surge of her own, climbing from outside the Top 200 to her current ranking of No 82, bolstered by her first WTA singles title in Hamburg last summer.
The Romanian used strong forehands to twice lead by a break in the opening set, at 2-0 and 3-2, but Kontaveit used her power game to secure the final 4 games of the set.
Although Ruse staved off 3 break points to hold serve in the opening game of the second, Kontaveit claimed 6 games in a row to seal her win, taking 65 percent of points off of the Ruse second serve during the match.
The rivalry between Kontaveit and Jabeur was the story down the stretch in 2021, and the two will resume their rivalry in the quarter-finals, playing for the first time since the Estonian eclipsed the Tunisian for the 8th and final spot at the Akron WTA Finals in Guadalajara last autumn.
Meanwhile, Caroline Garcia also reached the elite eight after receiving a walk-over from No 9 seed Elena Rybakina, who withdrew with a left thigh injury.
“Unfortunately, after playing a lot of tennis last week and then coming to Sydney and playing last night, my body has not recovered well and my thigh is causing me problems,” stated the Kazakh. “I am sad to have to withdraw from my match today and wish everybody the best for the rest of the tournament.”
On Tuesday night, Rybakina, the World No 13 who reached the final in Adelaide last week and lost to top seed Ash Barty, demolished Britain’s Emma Raducanu, 6-0 6-1.
The 19-year old from Bromley, who won the US Open in September and is recovering from a recent bout with COVID-19, was un-phased about the disappointing loss, telling the media after the match: “I don’t think it was so much nerves, and I felt pretty comfortable and welcome out there on court.
“I had a lot of support, which is really good, but I didn’t play tennis for 21 days, and to come out and play Rybakina straight up . . . It’s tough, but it’s good because I’m very proud and happy that I put myself out there.
“I could have easily said it’s too soon and just played next week, but I wanted to really test where I’m at and give myself some competitive points and matches.
“This will help in putting me in a better place for next week.”
Raducanu acknowledged that aspects of her game need to be addressed if she is to make any kind of run at Melbourne Park next week, where she is seeded 17, and she will be working hard with her new coach Torben Beltz over the coming days.
“After the match I went straight to the practice court,” she said. “I felt like I could have done some things better, and I wanted to try and fix it, just leave with a better feeling about it.
“I’m just at the start of my first season,” Raducanu added. “One of my goals is not to get too down or too high.
“It’s to just try and keep a steady progress and tracking upwards, hopefully.”
Elsewhere, following a rain delay, No 3 seed Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic earned a 6-1 7-5 win over Romania’s Jaqueline Cristian, while Paula Badosa, the 5th-seeded Spaniard, dispatched Australian hope Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-3 6-4.
The match between Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic from Switzerland and France’s Oceane Dodin, however, was held over with the score standing at 6-2, 5-6 in favour of the Frenchwoman.