Paris | Sabalenka and Rybakina avoid chaos, but Zheng and Keys are both upset

Rain continued to play havoc at the French Open in Paris on Saturday, resulting in scheduling chaos on the outside courts, but those destined to play under the roofs of Court Philippe-Chatrier and Suzanne-Lenglen made the most of the dry conditions.

It’s tough to play your best friend. She’s an incredible player coming back after injury, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to be back on top very soon. On court we’re opponents, I’m trying not to watch on the other side, just trying to focus on myself and just bring my best game, but, anyway, they’re tough matches against her. Aryna Sabalenka

There have been many rain delays this week at Roland Garros, forcing additional matches onto the two show courts to finish, and extending play into the small hours of the night, while, outside, a tapestry of court switches bewildered players and fans alike, but helped the schedule to catch up.

World No 4 Elena Rybakina serenely opened play on Chatrier, and continues to fly under the radar as she enjoyed a routine 6-4 6-2 win over Belgium’s Elise Mertens, taking just 67 minutes to clear the court.

The Russian-born Kazakh is a former Wimbledon champion and looking to improve on her best performance as a quarter-finalist in Paris in 2021, when she beat Serena Williams in the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s final match at Roland Garros.

Heading into Saturday’s Last 16 match, Rybakina had won 4 of her 5 meetings with Mertens, including a 6-1 6-0 rout in this year’s Brisbane 3rd-round, but the Belgian had been the victor in their only previous clay contest, at Madrid 2021, and pushed the World No 4 hard in the first set on this occasion.

The Belgian drew errors from Rybakina with superb defence, and used her variety of shot wisely to earn a break, twice, but the Kazakh broke back immediately both times, and, having levelled at 4-4, took control of the match with supreme ball-striking.

Rybakina’s backhand was in particularly smooth form, and it was from that wing that a pinpoint lob helped her hold for 5-4, followed by a bullet return that gained her the break for the set, while a superb short angled pass brought up her first match point, and a down-the-line winner, her 24th of the match, sealed the deal.

Next up for the No 4 seed is Elina Svitolina, the 15th seed, after the Ukrainian eased into the 4th-round with a 7-5 6-2 win over Ana Bogdan much later on in the day.

Svitolina, a former World No 3, is a 4-time quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, and found her way past the Romanian, who saved a set point at 5-4 in the first set with a backhand winner down the line, pushing the opener to 6-5.

The Ukrainian eventually grabbed the one-set lead with a powerful backhand service return, and, after a 30-minute rain delay at 2-1 in the second set, Svitolina returned to Court 12 on a mission, winning 4 of the next 5 games to triumph, converting 7 of her 10 break points on the day.


Aryna Sabalenka (R) saw off her best friend Paula Badosa to reach the Last 16 at Roland Garros

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Second seed Aryna Sabalenka followed Rybakina on Chatrier and set aside her friendship with Spaniard Paula Badosa to secure a hard-fought 7-5 6-1 win, keeping her hopes of a maiden Roland Garros title alive.

“It’s tough to play your best friend,” said the Belarusian, who improved her head-to-head record with Badosa to 5-2. “She’s an incredible player coming back after injury, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to be back on top very soon.

“On court we’re opponents, I’m trying not to watch on the other side, just trying to focus on myself and just bring my best game, but, anyway, they’re tough matches against her.”

Last year, Sabalenka’s semi-final run in Paris marked the first time she made it into the second week at Roland Garros.

Three days after Naomi Osaka took World No 1 Iga Swiatek to the brink of defeat, it was Sabalenka’s turn to be pushed hard by a former Top 3 player, and Badosa, who has spent the past year battling a back injury and whose ranking has fallen to 139, found some of her best tennis to lead 5-3 in the first set.

The first 8 games had seen 5 breaks of serve between the two, but Sabalenka tightened up her act, and dropped just one more point on serve in the opener as she rattled off the next 8 straight games to take a 4-0 lead in the second.

Her recently-introduced drop-shot proved crucial as it garnered her 3 key points on her way to her first-set come-back, and then again for the penultimate point of the match.

“Some days it’s actually getting more complicated to play,” admitted Sabalenka of the added variety to her game, after she had shared a very warm hug at the net with Badosa.

Later, the Spaniard heaped her own praise on Sabalenka, saying: “I think she shows that she’s such a natural, honest person. I think tennis needs players like her. Also, she brings an amazing game on the court, very intense. She’s passionate. I think we need players with this kind of charisma. She’s fun to watch.

“Off the court, she’s a nice person, very genuine, always trying to help. I think players that are so good in their sport and they’re, like, very normal and very humble, I think that’s the most important and the most inspiring.

“That’s why, I think, we have this amazing relationship, because even if she wins 10 more slams, she’s going to be the same person.”


Emma Navarro (R) surprised Madison Keys in 2 tiebreak sets to set up a meeting with Aryna Sabalenka for a place in the quarter-finals

© Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

Up next for Sabalenka is No 22 seed Emma Navarro, who took down the Strasbourg champion Madison Keys 7-6(5) 7-6(3), in a tight all-American battle that did not get onto Suzanne-Lenglen until well into the evening.

Navarro surprised Keys by charging forward on her rival’s high-kicking second serve, and taking the ball on the rise.

She missed a few early on, but the 23-year old did not let that discourage her from using the risky ploy, and it paid off in the first-set breaker, when she hit 2 of those returns for winners.

She also won with her backhand drop-shot, carving it out with feel and precision, and dropping it close to the net, where it was both safe and hard to reach in the heavy conditions.

“I love to scramble, I love to get scrappy, as my coach says,” said Navarro, who is a slight 5-foot-7, and won an NCAA singles title at the University of Virginia. “It’s one of the things that I love the most about the game. Just kind of that cat-and-mouse aspect of sort of playing.”

Now ranked 24th in the world, Navarro is 35-12 on the season, and is into the 4th round at a Grand Slam event for the first time.

Keys is one of the hardest hitters on tour, but Navarro’s excellent timing allowed her to counter-punch, sending that pace back across the net, and into the open court.

While Keys finished with 40 winners, Navarro held her own with 30.

“You’re either striking, or you’re getting struck,” she said “I’d rather do the former. Just, yeah, being comfortable enough to make the first move.”

Navarro got broken 4 times in the match, and made nearly as many errors as she had winners, but she was the more composed of the two in each breaker, pushing through to get a crack at Sabalenka next.

The 23-year old already has a win over the World No 2 this season, at Indian Wells.


Varvara Gracheva, a naturalised Frenchwoman, had the home crowd cheering her to an impressive win over Irina-Camelia Begu on Court Suzanne-Lenglen

© Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

Over on Suzanne-Lenglen, Varvara Gracheva kept the French flag flying as she opened the programme there with a 7-5 6-3 win over Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.

The Russian-born Frenchwoman meets Mirra Andreeva, a 17-year old Russian, for a place in the quarter-finals.

Just over a year ago, Gracheva had still been learning the words to the French national anthem, and was coming to the end of the 3-year process of gaining citizenship.

The 23-year-old began playing under the French flag in June, and this is her first Roland Garros experience as a Frenchwoman, after having trained in Cannes since 2016, and making the decision to obtain French nationality in 2020 in order to have a ‘stable base’.

The World No 88, who upset No 6 seed Maria Sakkari in the 1st round, was 0-5 in her previous Grand Slam 3rd-round appearances, and had endured a 7-match losing streak between January and March this year.

“If someone were to tell me that early on I would be smiling at 5-4, I wouldn’t believe you,” she said. “At the beginning of this year it was so hard. I was very frustrated about myself and about my game.

“When I was coming back, I decided to do things a bit more different, and good in a way. I met some people. I have now two good friends and one person that loves me. They really help me to appreciate the moment and to have a pleasure from the moment. So this is why I smile. I smile for them.”

Her next opponent, Andreeva, became the youngest woman since Anna Kournikova to reach 4th-round on each Grand Slam surface following her comprehensive win over America’s Peyton Stearns, 6-2 6-1, in a match moved from Court 7 to Court 2 following a rain delay that started at 6pm.

“I didn’t know that,” Andreeva said in her post-match press conference. “I’m happy that I’m the first in 26 years. OK, that’s good. I like that. Yeah, I’m happy that I managed to win a lot of matches and to be here.”

The World No 38-ranked deployed a number of successful drop-shots and moved Stearns consistently from side to side, while back-to-back service breaks in the first set gave her an early advantage she never relinquished.

Stearns, who won her first WTA Tour title a week ago, in Rabat, Morocco and had little preparation time, looked fatigued and lost in 67 minutes.

Looking ahead to her next encounter, Andreeva praised Gracheva and said that she was expecting a good match against her friend.

“Well, yeah, I know her pretty well,” she said. “We’ve been practicing together for almost two years. So, I know what to expect. She is at a great level right now, she plays great, so I’m sure it’s going to be a good match. I know it’s going to be hard. Probably we are going to play some big points. She is French, you know, all this stuff…

“So it’s going to be pretty tough for me, but I am really excited about the match because it’s challenging for me, I know that, the atmosphere, everyone will cheer for her.

“Also, I know her very well and she’s my friend, so, it’s like a challenge for me, and I’m sure it’s going to be an exciting match,” she added.


Elina Avanesyan upset World No 8 Zheng Qinwen in a tense match tiebreak to reach the Last 16 in Paris

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Another young Russian, 21-year old Elina Avanesyan shocked China’s Zheng Qinwen, the World No 8, 3-6 6-3 7-6[10-6] in their 3rd-round clash.

The last remaining unseeded floater in the quarter, Avanesyan, ranked 70, had to survive both a lengthy rain delay at 2-1 in the third set, and a blistering come-back from this year’s Australian Open runner-up before eking out victory.

Following the rain delay, Avanesyan used incredible groundstroke depth and foot-speed to reach a double-break lead at 5-2 and serve for the match, but Zheng changed things up, deploying a bevy of excellent drop-shots to pull all the way back to level footing.

The pair reached the decisive match tiebreak, where very little separated them through 6-6, when Avanesyan cranked a crosscourt backhand to move ahead 7-6, and the unseeded Russian won the following 3 points to close out the 7th seed.

Avanesyan will take on Italian Jasmine Paolini next, after the Italian 12th seed overcame 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Canada, 6-1 3-6 6-0, in 93 minutes on Court Simonne-Mathieu.

With drizzle coming in and out, Paolini commandingly breezed through the decider to extend her best-ever showing at Roland Garros, firing 7 winners to Andreescu’s 4 in the set, but the Italian also forced 9 additional errors in the set, while the Canadian had none.

The 28-year-old Paolini is having a breakthrough season, peaking at a career-high ranking of No 12 and winning the WTA 1000 title in Dubai, while Andreescu, a former World No 4, who has been battling injuries on and off for the last few years, was playing her first event in 9 months.


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