Aryna Sabalenka followed the procession of top seeds out of the French Open on Friday following her shock defeat to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and leaving Sofia Kenin as the highest seed standing at No 4, while Serena Williams, the No 7 seed, is the only Top 10 player left in the bottom half of the draw.
I know it's a cliché. I was the first one to laugh at this - players would say, 'I'm going to go and enjoy out there.' I'm like, 'Yeah, right. Go enjoy, of course, good luck.' Now I actually do that. Even today on the court, apart from having pain in my knee and my leg, I was enjoying. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Six of the top 10 women are now out of Roland Garros, after World No 1 Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova’s withdrawals without losing a match and the early upsets of Bianca Andreescu, Karolina Pliskova and Belinda Bencic.
Sabalenka failed to seize her opportunity as the No 3 seed against the talented Pavlyuchenkova, the 31st seed who proved too strong for the Belarusian, winning 6-4 2-6 6-0 in an hour and 40 minutes to reach the fourth round for the second time.
Pavlyuchenkova has reached the second week of 7 Grand Slams in her career, but this is the first time she has made that stage in Paris since her quarter-final run as a 19-year-old in 2011.
“Sometimes I guess it’s easier – well, not easier, but mentally you maybe have less to lose,” she said. “The better player you are, the more players want to beat you, the more they are fired up against you.
“At this point, I’m not focusing on the rankings anymore. I’m not focusing on anything, on the names, nothing. I just take this particular match, and I want to win this match. That’s it.”
In a rematch of the Madrid semi-final played at altitude a month ago, Sabalenka had dominated to win in straight sets en route to the title but on the slow, damp clay of Paris it was a different story.
While the Russian did well to reverse the outcome, Sabalenka played a significant role in her own demise as she struggled to keep the ball in the court, making 39 unforced errors for the match.
In short, in the final set, the wheels fell off her wagon.
Sabalenka started the match on a strong note, thundering winners on all parts of the court, while Pavlyuchenkova sought to find her range before eventually forcing the Belarusian onto the back foot and pushing her down a break to concede the opening set.
Sabalenka recovered impressively to capture the second, with a flurry of return winners key to racing away with the last 3 games, but she was unable to sustain her momentum in the decider.
At the end of the set Pavlyuchenkova, who already had strapping on her knee, left the court for a medical time-out and returned with her thigh now strapped to, to begin the final set on an inspired note.
Two double-faults in the opening game put Sabalenk at an immediate disadvantage, and the errors began to flow in earnest, flooding her game in the third set, in which she committed 4 of her 8 double-faults and 17 of her 39 unforced errors.
Sabalenka’s backhand let her down in particular, with 3 missing the mark in the last game alone, leaving her with no answers to Pavlyuchenkova’s steadfast game and, at the last, surrendered tamely.
“I know it’s a cliché,” the Russian said. “I was the first one to laugh at this – players would say, ‘I’m going to go and enjoy out there.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. Go enjoy, of course, good luck.’
“Now I actually do that. Even today on the court, apart from having pain in my knee and my leg, I was enjoying.
“I’m trying to embrace this. I’m enjoying much more now every point the tough matches than I used to before. I guess that’s also the reason why I’m still here in the second week.
“Also, I feel like I’m fitter. Because I’m enjoying playing tennis, I work harder. You work hard, you enjoy the hard work. I think that’s the best combination.”
Pavlyuchenkova will next face another Belarusian in 15th seed Victoria Azarenka in a bid to make her seventh Grand Slam quarter-final.
Azarenka, a former World No 1, came through in straight sets, defeating the American 23rd seed, Madison Keys, 6-2 6-2, in just 70 minutes.
This is the first time since 2013 that Azarenka has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, when reached the semi-final.
Azarenka had played only one match on clay this season entering Roland Garros, having withdrawn from the Madrid Open after her first-round win there due to a back injury.
While the Belarusian hit only 6 winners, she kept her unforced errors down to just 12, while Keys leaked 33.
“I thought I played really solid,” Azarenka said, following her win. “I felt I played very disciplined today.
“I played smart. I tried to be aggressive.
“My opponent, Madison, she really likes to dictate the points, so I tried to take that away from her, really step in, and make a lot of different balls so I’m pretty proud I was able to sustain my level.”
The seedings had projected an all-Belarusian clash in the round of 16, but Azarenka will not be facing Sabalenka after she was stunned by Pavlyuchenkova.
“[Pavlyuchenkova] is a great player, very dangerous player, especially against top players,” Azarenka said. “We know she can bring a very high level, she’s beaten a lot of the top players.
“Just this match before she beat Sabalenka, who has been playing amazing this clay season, so I know she’s a dangerous player.
“We’ve played a lot, I forget how many times we’ve played, but I think it’ll be an interesting match and I’m looking forward to this challenge.”
Meanwhile, like Azarenka, former Top 25 player Sorana Cirstea is also in the midst of a resurgence, and the Romanian’s superb 2021 continued with a 6-3 6-2 victory over Daria Kasatkina of Russia to reach the round of 16 in Paris.
“It was a very, very good match,” Cirstea said during her post-match press conference. “There were very few errors.
“Most of the points were winners from both sides, and I think the score is not fair because it was a way tougher battle than it showed.”
12 years ago, Cirstea reached her lone Grand Slam quarterfinal to date here in Paris, and she is now one win away from repeating that feat after her one-hour and 24-minute win over the World No 37.
“I’m taking it day by day, like I’m not going too far ahead with my mind,” Cirstea said. “I’m actually enjoying all this process.
“Definitely I’m enjoying [it] much more than I did 12 years ago, and I think this comes with maturity.”
The World No 54 is now 11-2 on clay this year and her renaissance includes her first WTA singles title in nearly 13 years, when she took home the trophy in Istanbul.
Cirstea takes on unseeded Tamara Zidansek for a spot in the quarter-finals, after the Slovenian quelled her nerves to eventually emerge a 0-6 7-6(5) 6-2 victor over Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic after an hour 57 minutes.