On a day of attrition and compassion in Rome, Friday’s play at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia saw Johanna Konta fall to Garbiñe Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka comfort an injured Daria Kasatkina after a nasty tumble, and top seeds Simona Halep and Karolina Plíšková advance into the quarter-finals.
I don’t think I change coaches often. I worked with Dimitri [Zavialoff ] for a year and a half, and actually I didn’t want that to end. That ended because of personal circumstances. Since then I have continued to work with [assistant coach] Dan Smethurst, so there is a lot of continuation there. I met with Thomas [Hogstedt] for three weeks. I didn’t hire him as a coach. I was getting to know him. Johanna Konta
Muguruza and Konta had played 4 times previously, each time going the distance to set their head-to-head record at 2 apiece but, on this occasion, it was the two-time Grand Slam champion from Spain who wrapped up the match in straight sets after a clash between the No 7 and 9th seeds.
“I served well, I was there in the right moments, and it went my side,” said Muguruza, in her post-match press conference. “I really took my chances. Yeah, I’m just happy to be able to face another player and to get a victory.”
Technically an upset, the 6-4 6-1 win moved Muguruza into her 6th quarter-final of the season, reflecting her regained form after posting wins over Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, and now Konta to face a red-hot Azarenka next.
“I’m happy, of course, because every time we play, we play long matches,” said Muguruza. “This time, I think I played a little bit smarter.”
“Someone that has played great can play great again and again and again. So for me, it’s not a surprise.
“I’m looking forward for a good match, another tough opponent.”
It took the Spaniard 82-minutes to get past Konta and it was by no means plain sailing, although Muguruza was never broken, fending off the 3 break points she faced with aplomb.
She won 82 percent of her first-service points, and claimed 65 percent of points off of the Konta second serve.
“I think I’m facing very good players,” Muguruza stated. “It’s great, because honestly that’s what I’m looking for, just to play matches and to face right away good matches, good opponents, and to see where I’m at.”
Konta, the World No 13, who reached the Rome final last season, matched Muguruza in winners with 15 apiece, but the Brit was undone by an uncharacteristic 22 unforced errors, compared to only 13 unforced errors for the Spaniard.
Evenly-matched from the get-go, they reached 3-2 without much drama on serve, and when Konta got into strife on her delivery to face a 0-40 deficit, the Brit used exceptional skill off the forehand side to erase each of the trio, eventually holding for 3-3.
Muguruza was unfazed by the missed opportunities, continuing her deep, powerful onslaught unabated, while 2 strong serves got her out of a 0-30 jam at 4-4, and she kept herself in front with a 5-4 hold.
Konta was pressured again on serve as Muguruza drilled her returns to 0-40 and while the British No 1 saved the first with a winning drop volley, the Spaniard converted the second with another penetrating return to earn the first break of the day, and a one-set lead.
After the smallest of margins, Muguruza capitalised on the edge in the second and when, at 1-0, Konta had game point and missed her forehand followed by a double-fault, she suddenly grabbed a break point and converted after drawing a backhand error from the Brit to go up 2-0.
Konta had a chance to get back on serve straight away, as she grasped her only 3 break points of the match in the very next game but Muguruza held firm, and opened up a commanding 3-0 lead.
Muguruza’s backhand became deadlier as she polished off a love hold for 4-1and then broke for 5-1 with a scorching return winner from that wing before seizing the win with another love hold.
The Spaniard will next face Victoria Azarenka, who advanced after Daria Kasatkina unfortunately suffered an injury during the first-set tiebreak of their match.
Azarenka has defeated Muguruza in two of their three previous meetings.
“I’m looking forward to a good match, another tough opponent,” said Muguruza. “Also, [Azarenka is] playing great, so it’s a good quarterfinal. It’s what you expect to be in a quarterfinals, facing the players that are playing well.”
In her post-match video conference, Konta told reporters that her 3-week trial collaboration with Thomas Hogstedt was over.
“It wasn’t something that worked for me really or for either of us,” said Konta of Hogstedt, who has previously coached four major champions in Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep. “Things have to match up.
“You have to be able to bring the best out of each other, and we didn’t feel that it was gonna be a good fit.”
Hogstedt was her 5th coach in 6 years but she bridled at the suggestion that she is a serial sacker of coaches.
“I don’t think I change coaches often,” she said. “I worked with Dimitri [Zavialoff ] for a year and a half, and actually I didn’t want that to end. That ended because of personal circumstances.
“Since then I have continued to work with [assistant coach] Dan Smethurst, so there is a lot of continuation there. I met with Thomas for three weeks. I didn’t hire him as a coach. I was getting to know him.”
In Rome she was accompanied only by long-time fitness trainer Gill Myburgh and will now return home for a few days before travelling to Paris where she reached the semi-finals last year.
“I think I have every chance of doing well [in Paris],” said Konta. “I showed I was playing some good tennis here, which I would like to build on.
“But there are 128 girls in the draw who have every opportunity to do well.”
Vika comforts Kasatkina
Unseeded Victoria Azarenka earned her berth in the quarters when Daria Kasatkina retired due to a right ankle injury she sustained in the first-set tiebreak.
As the Russian chased a ball that clipped off the net on the second point of the breaker, with Azarenka leading 1-0, she rolled over on her right foot during her slide.
Azarenka rushed to the Russian’s aid, helping her return to her chair and grabbing an ice bag for Kasatkina’s foot, but the shaken 23-year-old was unable to continue and retired from the match.
“I’m really sad for Daria because we were playing such great tennis,” Azarenka said afterwards. “I felt it was such a great fight and she’s such a talented player… and I felt like this was, maybe, closer to being her moment, so it’s very unfortunate that she has an injury.
“It’s difficult to find the words when you have emotions.
“I know how sad she was, and I could see that she worked really, really hard… and she was very gracious that my, kind of, ‘comeback’ has inspired her and I just told her to keep going.
“She’s a strong girl and she has a big personality, so I think she’ll be fine.”
The emotional scenes came after an hour and 16 minutes of intense play, with the pair locked in battle.
Kasatkina had 4 impressive wins under her belt in Rome, including 2 in qualifying, and was looking to recapture the form that propelled her to the Top 10 in October 2018.
She had been pushing the Belarusian’s limits in the match despite Azarenka coming into it full of confidence after stunning world No 5 Sofia Kenin, 6-0 6-0.
Kasatkina has dealt with injury setbacks before, including a rolled ankle on the very same Italian Open stadium court in 2017.
“I hope she’s able to recover before the French Open,” Azarenka said. “I offered her my help and my team’s help if she needs it.”
Azarenka is now moves on a 14-1 run and moves into the quarters where she will square off against Muguruza.
“In terms of what I can do, I have to focus on my game,” Azarenka said looking ahead. “I think that’s what I do best, when I focus on my game and imposing my way of playing.
“Obviously, adjusting a little bit because of the clay, and bring a little more variety this time, but I don’t really expect tomorrow to have long rallies like today.”
Halep and Plíšková advance
Former French Open winner and current Wimbledon champion Simona Halep overcame a break deficit in her first set to edge out Ukrainian youngster Dayana Yastremska, 7-5 6-4.
“It was not easy against her because you don’t really have the rhythm,” said Halep. “She hits it very strong and it’s tough to return her balls.
“After I lost the first three games, I just had to focus a little bit better and stop giving her the balls that she likes.
“I tried to change it up a little bit, make her move, [hit balls] a little bit high. I think during the match I found some solutions that were good to win.
“I’m very pleased with the way I moved… and also the serve helped me a lot today. In important moments, I served very well and I won some easy games on my serve.
“The return was not bad because she has a very good serve.”
The World No 2 decided not to play the US Open and has focused on the clay in Europe, winning the recent Prague Open, and looking to raise the Rome trophy for the first time, having contested the final in 2017 and 2018.
The two-time Grand Slam champion was made to work hard for her place in the last 8, and will next test Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, who upended compatriot Elena Rybakina, the 10th seed, 4-6 7-6(3) 6-2.
Second seed Karolína Plíšková of the Czech Republic beat Anna Blinkova, 6-4 6-3, after getting off to a slow start with 2 double-faults in the opening game, which Blinkova the Russian with relish.
The 22-year-old, however, was unable to consolidate, repeatedly going wide on her down-the-line attempts to hand the advantage back with an exchange of breaks.,
Plíšková’s serve settled down and her accuracy improved while Blinkova’s errors also helped her cause and she broke the World No 65 to seal the opener.
Warming to her task in the second, Plíšková survived a flurry of winners from the Russian qualifier, who couldn’t sustain that level, and the Czech slotted a perfect backhand down the line to break for 3-1.
The 28-year-old produced a pair of brilliant inside-out returns paving the way to a 5-1 double break, but, serving for the match and seemingly in control at 30-0, the double-faults returned, throwing Blinkova a lifeline.
The 2015 Wimbledon junior finalist seized her chance with a superb deep return, but Plíšková, an insurance break in hand, made no mistake and closed out the win with a businesslike love hold to set up a quarter-final date against No 11 seed Elise Mertens.
The Belgian has played every event since the women’s tour resumed in Palermo, racking up 15 singles victories, the latest being against qualifier Danka Kovinic, 6-4 6-4; while 4th-seeded Elina Svitolina of Ukraine also progressed with a 7-6(6) 6-4 win over Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Svitolina’s next opponent in the quarter-finals on Friday is French finalist Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic, who secured her spot with a win over Polona Hercog from Slovenia, 1-6 6-1 7-6(5).