Paris | Under-dogs fell Sabalenka and Rybakina

Wednesday was a day of shocks as both Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, the No 2 and No 4 ranked players in the world, lost their French Open quarter-final matches to under-dogs Mirra Andreeva and Jasmine Paolini.

Yeah, today was the perfect day, I think, singles and doubles. The singles was a really tough match. I'm happy I managed to come back in the third set, because, you know, was tough after the second set. But, yeah, I'm really happy with my performance, and I'm also happy for the doubles, of course. Jasmine Paolini

Both appeared to be out of sorts against two determined pretenders, who were intent on securing first-time semi-final berths at a Grand Slam.

17-year old Andreeva pulled off the biggest win of her career, toppling Sabalenka, 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4, in a match that was hard to watch at times, as the Belarusian frequently doubled over and looked close to retiring.

Clearly ailing, Sabalenka received a medical timeout during the first set, and subsequent other attention later in the match that lasted 2 hours and 29 minutes.

The 26-year-old at times barely looked as if she could continue, but soldiered on as fans on Court Philippe-Chatrier got behind her.

Yet to drop a set at a Grand Slam this year, Sabalenka had lost more than 4 games in only 2 of the 22 sets she had played over her 11-match winning streak, and was determined to fight her way through on this day, mustering enough power to see the battle through to its end, but her energy levels and effort rose and fell from game to game, sometimes from point to point.

Andreeva, for her part, kept her own unpredictable emotions in check, but nearly cracked early in the third set after missing a big chance, before fighting back from a service break down, and surging ahead in the final 2 games, finishing the upset win with a stunning backhand and magical topspin lob.

“I tried to play brave and I managed to win,” said 38th-ranked Andreeva, who is based in Cannes and coached by 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez. “I even forgot what was the score… When it was the second match point for me, I tried to imagine I was saving a break point. I tried to play brave. And I managed to win.”


An out-of-sorts Elena Rybakina could not get past Jasmine Paolini on Wednesday

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Having won her last two meetings with Andreeva comfortably, Sabalenka wasted little time getting to work as the Australian Open champion cranked up her big shots to go ahead 3-1 before her serve came undone in the opening set.

Suddenly out-of-sorts and looking unwell, Sabalenka called the trainer out after Andreeva, sensing a real opportunity to cause a massive upset on the biggest stage, cruised to a 5-3 lead.

The Belarusian managed to regroup to force the breaker, where the World No 2 seized the advantage with a stunning drop-shot on set-point.

She appeared to struggle physically again at the start of the second, though, and got a time violation for taking too long between games.

Crouched to her knees to recover at one stage, Sabalenka looked agitated at 2-4 down, eventually allowing her young Russian opponent to take the match into a decider.

After an exchange of breaks, the pair were locked in a high-quality battle that thrilled fans on Court Philippe Chatrier, but Andreeva held her own, and broke Sabalenka in the final game to complete her biggest win on her 2nd match point.

“It feels amazing. It was a thriller of a match and we both played good,” Andreeva said. “I’m really happy that I managed to win the match and go to my first semi-finals.”

Andreeva became the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam semi-final since former World No 1 Martina Hingis, who was 16 when she reached the Last 4 at both the Roland Garros and US Open in 1997.

Her refreshingly fearless stroke play has caught the eye at Roland Garros, and she paid tribute to her coach Martinez, although she admitted that it was hard to keep track of all her instructions.

“I would say that I always play the way I want to play,” Andreeva told reporters later. “We have a plan with my coach for the match, but afterwards I forget everything.

“When I play a match, I don’t have any thoughts in my head. So maybe I would say that my strength could be that I just play how I want to play, and I do whatever I want to do. Maybe this helps me when I play.”

She admitted to feeling some nerves, but her confidence only grew as the match wore on.

“In the beginning I didn’t really believe it, because she’s very experienced,” Andreeva said. “She has two Grand Slams in her pocket. She’s a great player, very aggressive, so, it was, like, ‘we’ll see what will happen, but I’m not sure if I can do it, but I will just try to enjoy the atmosphere and try to play the best way I can’.”

Sabalenka admitted that she had been struggling with a stomach bug for a few days, which put paid to her bid to become the first woman since Serena Williams to win both the Australian Open and Roland Garros in the same season, in 2015.

“I had a difficult time out there, physically,” Sabalenka admitted. “I did my best to try and manage it. I always do my best to fight to the end. I had to keep trying, and hope I could find a way, and feel a bit better.”


Mirra Andreeva upset World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The precocious Andreeva’s opponent in the next round should have been Rybakina, but the Russian-born Kazakh failed to find a way past Italy’s Paolini, who battled hard to secure a 6-2 4-6 6-4 win.

“I started to play better with more consistency last year, and in the middle July, match by match, I felt more convinced that I can play at the higher level,” Paolini, the Dubai champion said. “But it was a process. It’s not like I switch on something.

“Now, I step on court and I say to myself I have a chance to win the match. Before, when I was playing against top players, I was like ‘okay, I need a miracle to win this match’. So I was already losing the match before even playing.”

Paolini reached the semi-finals in both singles and doubles on Wednesday, and she said her experienced playing partner, Sara Errani, is a major part of that success.

“Yeah, today was the perfect day, I think, singles and doubles,” Paolini told reporters. “The singles was a really tough match. I’m happy I managed to come back in the third set, because, you know, was tough after the second set.

“But, yeah, I’m really happy with my performance, and I’m also happy for the doubles, of course.”

After her 3-set win over Rybakina, Paolini took to the court alongside fellow-Italian Errani, and the pair defeated American Emma Navarro & Diana Shnaider from Russia, 6-3 6-3.

Paolini has never before gone past the 4th round at a Grand Slam in either singles or doubles, but 37-year-old Errani has been a finalist at Roland Garros in singles, and has won 5 Grand Slams in doubles, and she was sitting in the Italian’s player box in support.

“I think she’s helping me so much, you know, to play doubles with her, I can talk about tennis with her, I can ask her strategies,” Paolini said. “But also, some advice, how to step on court, what can I do today to play better.

“You know, it’s somebody that I think can help me so much. She already did a Grand Slam final, so she already has been in this position. So I think she’s just someone that can help me in many aspects.”


Aryna Sabalenka (R) battled both Mirra Andreeva and a stomach ailment on Wednesday but could not prevail at Roland Garros

© Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

Paolini broke to start the contest against the out-of-sorts Rybakina, ripping second-serve returns to put the Russian-born Kazakh on her back foot.

The No 4 seed struggled to find her range throughout the opener, with several shots sailing long as the diminutive Italian executed a near-perfect set of tennis, producing only 1 unforced error and dropping just 1 point on serve at the line, while dazzling with an 8 for 8 success rate on her second delivery.

Rybakina needed the reset button, making double the unforced errors as winners, and facing 9 break points in a series of uneven service games.

Paolini failed to consolidate 2 separate breaks in the second, at 2-1 and 4-3, and it ultimately cost her for the set, as Rybakina found her range, now blasting some of her best strikes of the contest and seizing the momentum to level at a set apiece.

The first 4 games of the decider went to the returner, with Paolini missing a pair of game points to go up 3-1.

Both held firm with strong hitting and timely drop-shots to bring the encounter to 4-4, where a trio of forehand miscues across the net by Rybakina put the match on Paolini’s racket.

Pushed to 30-30, Paolini stayed the course to pull off her first Top 5 victory at a major after 2 hours and 3 minutes, also avenging April’s Stuttgart quarter-final defeat.

That’s not all Paolini pulled off, as a result of her performance in Paris, this year’s Dubai champion is projected to make her Top 10 debut next week.

Rybakina later bemoaned her off day to reporters, saying: “She played really well, she started much better, she was moving good, I started a bit slow and she was aggressive from the first ball.

“I was trying to fight through, but it’s not the greatest day in the office.”

The 24-year old added that she has slept badly and struggled with allergies throughout the tournament.

“I think, in the end, my legs were not there,” she said. “No matter which conditions, if it’s slow or fast, I should have been moving better. I’m not really happy with the performance, but it is what it is, it’s tennis.”

The former Wimbledon champion will now turn her attention to the grass court season and the Olympic Games in Paris.


Former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez is the coach of Mirra Andreeva

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Paolini’s opponent in the semi-final is Andreeva, who decided to withdraw from her doubles quarter-final.

“For me, it’s as important as singles, because if you enter in a competition, in my opinion, you have to finish,” Paolini commented. “But, you know, that’s my decision. I understand the other side. I don’t want to criticise anyone.

“But, for myself, it was important to step on court, and to try to win also the quarter-finals in doubles.”

Andreeva may be an unexpected semi-final opponent, but the Russian teenager won their only previous meeting when they met at the Madrid Open.

“With Mirra, it’s going to be a tough match,” Paolini said. “I played against her in Madrid, and she’s a really great player. She’s so young but she’s so, so good, mentally, and she can defend very well. She can serve well.

“It’s going to be a tough match, but we are in the semi-final, so there is no chance to get easy matches.”


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