Kiki Bertens, the top seed at the Internationaux de Strasbourg retired in the final set giving Jelena Ostapenko clear passage into the quarter-finals, while Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina were all winners on Wednesday.
After the first set, I’m really proud of myself that I found my game. I fight through everything, and through the work I found my rhythm. I’m really happy with the match. She played really well, she pushed me a lot and I’m happy that I could handle it. Aryna Sabalenka
Ostapenko was the surprise 2017 French Open winner, and has climbed as high as World No 5 but has fallen on harder times of late, dropping as low as No 83 but now steadily climbing to a current 43.
Now working with Thomas Hogstedt, the 23-year-old Latvian progressed to the quarters courtesy of Bertens withdrawing from the match after having turned her fortunes around in the second set.
“She retired, it’s not the best way to finish the match, but I’m glad that I was fighting because it might have been over in two sets,” she said. “I was a set and 4-2 down and I’m glad I fought to the end.
“I couldn’t find my game and I think I was rushing a little bit.
“Then in the second set, I started to play better, a bit smarter, not go for every shot. I tried to play some different games, drop-shots and kick serves, and I think that worked pretty well.”
After haemorrhaging 11 unforced errors to Berten’s 2 in the opener, which lasted less than half an hour, the change of tempo altered the flow of the match and by the end of the second, Ostapenko had wrestled the momentum away from her to establish a lead in the decider before the Dutchwoman was forced to retire retire due to an Achilles tendon injury.
“It’s important to play this kind of match, especially when you don’t play your best and you have to try to find your game and try to improve some things, especially in the week before a Grand Slam.,” Ostapenko said.
“I always knew that I could be at that level,” she said reflecting on her 2017 triumph over Simona Halep. “I’m getting slowly back there.
“I can get back to Top 5 and win another Slam, that’s what I’m working for just now.”
Her success over Bertens, just her second Top 10 win on the clay, represents another step towards her goal, with Nao Hibino to follow in the last 8.
“She’s a bit different from Kiki. I have to stay with my game and play my game, and of course I’ve got a chance of beating her,” she said.
Japan’s Hibino dispatched Zarina Diyas from Kazakstan, 7-5 6-3.
Sabalenka stops Blinkova
Aryna Sabalenka, the 4th seed in Strasbourg, dodged an upset after coming back from a set down against Russia’s Anna Blinkova on her way to the quarters.
Struggling to find her footing in a one-sided opening set, the Belarusian trailed in the second, but managed to turn things around to win, 1-6 6-4 6-2.
“After the first set, I’m really proud of myself that I found my game,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I fight through everything, and through the work I found my rhythm. I’m really happy with the match.
“She played really well, she pushed me a lot and I’m happy that I could handle it.
“Before, if I was just playing like I did in the first set, I’m rushing a lot and getting more and more nervous,” she reflected. “In this match, I found that I just need to slow down a little bit and just try to stay in the rallies as much as I can. I’m proud of myself that after the first set I could handle it.”
Blinkova came off a strong showing last week in Rome, where the 22-year-old battled through the qualifying rounds and knocked out Lexington finalist Jil Teichmann and Aliona Bolsova before falling to Karolina Pliskova in the round of 16.
She made a confident start, dominating the rallies as she weathered the Belarusian’s booming groundstrokes, forcing Sabalenka to go for bigger shots and commit unforced errors.
When Sabalenka broke Blinkova to open the second, the momentum seemed to shift towards her as started to fire winners off both wings.
Sabalenka earned a crucial break at 4-3 after a marathon game that went to deuce 3 times as Blinkova fought hard, but there was no slowing down the No 4 seed as she served out the set, 6-4, and grabbed an early break for a 3-1 lead in the second.
With relentless attacking tennis Sabalenka broke again for 5-2, and comfortably closed out the match after nearly two hours on court.
“I came back after the first set and started playing more through the cross-court just to find my rhythm,” Sabalenka explained. “Just tried to stay in the rallies as long as I could just to find my rhythm back. And I did that well.
“There was a few points in that set that turned around the match, and I handled that really well.”
Sabalenka fired 27 winners across the 3 sets, outpacing Blinkova’s 18, and kept a tighter differential to her 32 unforced errors, most coming in the opening set, and Blinkova’s own 27 unforced errors.
Up next for the Belarusian is Katerina Siniakova from Czech Republic, who upset No 7 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, 6-2 6-4, earlier in the day to advance to her first WTA singles quarter-final of the season.
“She’s moving really well and she’s playing quite flat,” Sabalenka said. “I would say she was really consistent today, she’s moving to the net and she’s serving well.
“It’s going to be another tough match, but I’m ready for that and I’m ready for a big fight.”
Celebrity Ball Boy
Going mostly unnoticed, former World No 12 Paul Henri-Mathieu was on court, fulfilling ball boy duties, reprising a role he did at the Strasburg event 30 years ago when he was just an eight-year-old.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children are not allowed to work as ball persons this year.
“It was a great way to pay tribute to the WTA on its 50th anniversary,” Mathieu told local newspaper l’ Alsace. “In addition, I had already picked up the balls in these same internationals. In 1989 and 1990, I was a collector in Hautepierre (the league centre in Strasbourg).
“These are the kinds of events that make you want to go professional even more when you’re a kid.”
Mathieu, who won 4 ATP titles during his career, picked up balls during the first set of Sabalenka’s clash with Blinkova.
He retired from the sport back in 2017 after earning more than $6.2 million in prize money and recording 10 wins over top 10 players on the ATP Tour, ending 12 out of his last 15 seasons ranked in the world’s top 100.
“It was tough, I was doing the baseline with the sun in my eyes! In addition, with the Covid rules, there are only three on the court… But it’s the youngster who is at the net who does all the work. He’s the one who sets the pace and, there, he was very good!” said the former Davis Cup finalist.
Mathieu has remained involved in tennis since retiring and now works as a consultant for Eurosport France, and is also a sponsor of the French Touch Tennis Academy in Cap d’Agde.
Siniakova sweeps past Alexandrova
Unseeded Katerina Siniakova scored a straight-set victory over No 7 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia, 6-2 6-4, in 80 minutes.
“I feel really good on clay,” Siniakova told the media, after her win. “It was tough, it was a good match, I’m happy about it.”
The World No 62 won two-thirds of her second-service points on the day, only dropping serve once during the encounter.
As for Alexandrova, the World No 31, the Russian held a slight edge in winners, out-pointing the Czech in by 10 to 9, but the No 7 seed was undone by 31 unforced errors in the tilt.
“Of course [Alexandrova] is a big hitter, she plays fast,” said Siniakova. “I was trying to be focused on every point, and I think I did really good today.”
“I feel confident on clay now, so hopefully I can continue that, and even next week [at Roland Garros],” the Czech continued.