Paris | Mertens upends Pegula as Sabalenka refuses to attend post-match media call

Friday was a dramatic day, both on and off the red clay courts of Roland Garros, as Elise Mertens pulled off the upset of the French Open by beating World No 3 Jessica Pegula in straight sets, while Aryna Sabalenka, the 2nd seed in Paris, took care of Kamilla Rakhimova with relative ease, and then caused a tizzy by refusing to do her post-match press conference, saying she felt unsafe.


I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. For my own mental health and well being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision. Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka made it into the second week for the first time by booking her place in the Last 16 with her 6-2 6-2 win over Rakhimova, taking just 67 minutes to put away the unseeded Russian, ranked 82.

“In the middle of the second set, I thought, ‘I never get through this one’, but then I was like, ‘Okay, Aryna, this is not something you have to be focused on’,” Sabalenka said of finally breaking the 3rd-round. “I put away these thoughts really quick in the match.

“Of course, this win gave me so much belief in myself here in Paris, so I know that on the next match I will go there and do everything I can to win another match.”

The Belarusian has yet to drop a set in the tournament, and is one of the favourites for the championship trophy after a fine start to the year, including securing her maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in Melbourne, and lifting the Madrid Open honours.

“Every tournament is a different tournament, Roland Garros is completely different to Australia, a different surface,” she said. “It’s really good to have a Grand Slam in your pocket – it gives you so much confidence.”

Rakhimova nearly grabbed an early break point at 2-2 in the first set, but her passing winner was negated after she touched the net at the end of the point.

Sabalenka regrouped in that game to hold with a backhand winner, and that kicked off a 7 game winning streak to lead 6-2, 3-0.

When the Belarusian misfired on a volley to give Rakhimova her only break point of the day at 4-2 in the second, Sabalenka erased that chance with a second-serve ace, and had no trouble powering her way to the finish line from there, wrapping up the clash with her 4th service break of the match.

The win was her 32nd of the year, which leads all players on the WTA Tour, two ahead of second-placed Iga Swiatek and Elena Rybakina, who have each won 30 matches this season.

On Friday, Aryna Sabalenka refused to attend her post-match press conference because she felt unsafe

© Clive Mason/Getty Images

Later, she skipped the usual media call, saying she made the decision for her own ‘mental health and well-being’, apparently with the support of French Open organisers and the WTA since the standard fine for skipping a post-match press conference was waived.

French press authorities said that Sabalenka had spoken with a select group of journalists, although they did not reveal who these media members were, before issuing a transcript quoting the Belarusian: “After my match [on Wednesday], I spoke with the media like I normally do. I know they still expect some questions that are more about the politics and not so much about my tennis,” Sabalenka said.

“For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments, and been very clear in my feelings and thoughts. These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in the press conference.

“I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. For my own mental health and well being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision.

“It hasn’t been an easy few days, and now my focus is continue to play well here in Paris.”

According to reports, a young Ukrainian woman, Daria Meshcheriakova, hitherto unknown to journalists, has persistently been questioning Sabalenka with increasing confrontational pressure.

On Wednesday, Sabalenka was asked whether she supported Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and if she would denounce the war in Ukraine, to which she answered: “I’ve got no comments to you.”

Sabalenka opened her French Open campaign with a win over Marta Kostyuk, and, after that match, the Ukrainian refused to shake hands with her, drawing boos from the crowd at Roland Garros.

Addressing the incident at her Sunday news conference, Sabalenka said: “Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody — normal people — will never support it.”

A delighted Sloane Stephens got past Yulia Putintseva in 3 sets and will face Aryna Sabalenka in the 4th-round at Roland Garros

© Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

Sabalenka will face former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, who reached the Round of 16 at Roland Garros for the 9th time in her career with a 6-3 3-6 6-2 win over Yulia Putintseva from Kazakhstan, taking 2 hours and 23 minutes to level their head-to-head record at 3 wins apiece.

Stephens had to come from a break down in the defeat to get past the Russian-born Kazakh.

The American former World No 3 has now won 35 matches over her career at the French Open, her most match-wins at any of the 4 Grand Slams, while, along with her 2018 runner-up finish, she also reached the quarter-finals in 2019 and last year.

Stephens converted 7 of her 10 break points to beat Putintseva and go 12-2 in her last 14 matches on clay.

For gifting her a unique athletic prowess, Stephens thanked her mother Sybil, who was the first black female swimmer to be named a first-team Division I All-American when she competed for Boston University.

“I get my power from my mom,” Stephens said. “She’s the most athletic person in our family!”

Coming into the French Open, Stephens won the WTA 125 title in Saint Malo and reached the semi-finals of WTA 250 Rabat.

Elise Mertens pulled off the upset of tournament by delivering a masterclass to beat Jessica Pegula, the World No 3, on Court Philippe-Chatrier

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

Pegula’s hopes of a deep run in Paris were prematurely ended in comprehensive fashion by Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, who cruised to a 6-1 6-3 victory to reach the 4th-round for the 3rd time.

The World No 3, who only has 2 WTA Tour titles to her name, has still never passed the quarter-final stage of a Grand Slam tournament, and the American got off to a pretty rough start in Paris, suffering from food poisoning last week, which left her weak and unable to practice.

“Coming into this week’s French Open, my preparations were completely thrown by getting food poisoning on my first night and first dinner in Paris,” Pegula wrote in a column for BBC Sport. “What horrendous luck – I haven’t gone out to a restaurant since, because I’ve been too afraid to eat there.

“I don’t know exactly what did the damage. I had escargots – I love escargots – but everyone else in my group had them. I also had salmon so maybe it was a bad piece of fish. I was throwing up for the whole night and I couldn’t sleep much.”

Pegula recovered sufficiently to make it into round 4, but Mertens delivered a tactical masterclass, first dominating the American 3rd seed in the first set, and then making it through a tight second that could have swung either way.

It also didn’t help Pegula’s case that Mertens had a 2-0 win-to-loss record against the 29-year-old prior to this match.

The 27-year-old Belgian’s game was clicking in every aspect as she raced to a 6-1, 1-0 lead, firing 9 winners to only 4 unforced errors in the opener, including a series of perfectly executed drop-shots, a flicked backhand pass at full stretch, and a number of emphatic overheads that called to mind her stellar doubles career.

Mertens was even able to bring up a break point at the start of the second set with a wild mishit lob winner on the baseline, duly converted for an early lead.

A pair of double-faults in the next game, though, allowed Pegula back into the match, and she broke back, now deploying the drop-shot to superb effect herself as she gained a foothold in the contest.

Although she struggled with her shot-making throughout the match, Pegula did mount a fightback, conjuring up a couple of break-back points to level the set at 4-all, but Mertens fended them all off before securing the match on her serve in the 9th game.

The key game was that 5-deuce tussle with which Mertens held for 5-3, as the former No 12 switched tactics to slow the pace of the rallies down.

She staved off 1 of the 3 break points she faced in this game with a classic clay-court defence-to-offence exchange, and, in the face of this approach, Pegula’s unforced error count mounted, eventually totalling 28 compared to 19 winners, while Mertens finished with 20 winners to only 13 unforced errors.

“I was very happy to win in two sets. She’s a very good player,” Mertens said. “I think I played well. I was delighted to play on this amazing court. Thank you to everyone, it was amazing.

“The first set was easy, it was amazing. During the second set at 4-3, it was really difficult. I was very happy to win that game. You never know how it can end. I was very happy to win that game and the match.”

2021 Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova outlasted 24th-seeded Anastasia Potapova to advance to the Last 16 on Friday afternoon

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Mertens, a former Australian Open semi-finalist, will next face 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who outlasted Russian compatriot Anastasia Potapova, the No 24 seed, 4-6 6-3 6-0, after an hour and 51 minutes.

Pavlyuchenkova’s only previous meeting with Potapova had been a 3-hour, 20-minute barn-burner in the first round of Istanbul 2021, which Potapova won 7-6(2) 6-7(8) 6-4.

Although the rematch also required a deciding set, it was ultimately more straightforward as Pavlyuchenkova took the last 9 games on the trot, as her powerful groundstrokes kicked in smoothly in the second half of the match.

She struck 29 winners to Potapova’s 17, and the quality of her returning was such that Potapova won only 3 points on her serve in the decider.

Pavlyuchenkova also won 53% of her first-serve points across the first and second sets, but this number went up to 75% in the decider.

Sidelined for much of 2022 due to a knee surgery, Pavlyuchenkova advances to the second week of a major for the 10th time, and a 3rd at Roland Garros, where she was the 2021 runner-up.

The World No 333, who has been ranked as high as 21, is the second lowest-ranked player ever to reach the Last 16 at the French Open in the Open Era, following Serena Williams, who was ranked No 451 when she made that stage in 2018.



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