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Pegula fells Pliskova again, Muguruza and Azarenka advance in Berlin

With the demise of Karolina Pliskova, the World No 10, at the hands of Jessica Pegula, Belinda Bencic, Garbiñe Muguruza and Victoria Azarenka are the only remaining seeds to make the quarter-finals at the bett1open in Berlin on Thursday.

We’ve practiced many times and I’ve watched her; she’s playing great the last couple of years. I knew I had to be very focused on the return and serve, so I managed pretty well. I think we should all fight for every point, but today it was the key. Even if I was down 0-40, I was going to try and hit the ball with my wristband if it was necessary, so I’m very happy with my fighting spirit. Garbiñe Muguruza

Azarenka, the 7th seed, and Pegula will play each for a place in the semi-final after extending their dominance over Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova respetively in the second round, with the Belarusian topping the German, 6-3 7-5, in an hour and 22 minutes, and the American taking out the No 4-seeded Czech for the fourth time in their fourth meeting this season, 7-5 6-2, in an hour and 15 minutes.

The No 6 seed, Muguruza, edged a tight contest against French Open quarter-finalist Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan to go through 6-4 6-3 and book a date with France’s Alizé Cornet.

The Spaniard joins Bencic, the 5th seed from Switzerland, American Madison Keys, and Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia, who all played on Wednesday, in the quarters where another Russian, qualifier Liudmila Samsonova makes up the last 8 after a 6-4 6-3 win over Czech Veronika Kudermetova.

Azarenka reached her first grass-court quarter-final in 6 years by maintaining her mastery over fellow Grand Slam winner and former World No 1 Kerber, coming from 4-1 down in the second set to progress in straight sets against the home favourite.

The Belarusian has now won 10 of her past 11 meetings with the German, whose sole victory during that record came in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open.

Azarenka’s aggressive groundstrokes on the return were key for the Belarusian, who struck 28 winners to Kerber’s 16, but needed to overcome 6 double-faults in the second set.

The high-quality opener was decided by the narrowest of margins, with Azarenka saving both of the break points she faced at the get-go and then, when leading 4-3, bringing up a first of her own on the Kerber serve, thanks to a delicate drop-shot.

The German responded with an untimely double-fault, and Azarenka served out the set efficiently.

With just 4 unforced errors in the first set, Azarenka was more generous in the second in tallying 15 alongside at least one double-fault in each of her first 5 service games.

Kerber took full advantage, breaking for 3-1 with a spectacular pass and then again for 5-3 with a backhand winner down the line, but Azarenka never let momentum slip from her, breaking the German back both times with strong return games.

After finding 3 clean winners to prevent the 3-time Grand Slam champion from serving out the second set, Azarenka took control again to race through the last 4 games in a row.

Serving it out, she needed 4 match points, but sealed her last-8 spot as Kerber sent her last backhand long.

“I always really enjoy our battles,” Azarenka said. “I always know that it’s going to be a battle, no matter what and I prepare myself for that – there is a certain preparation and motivation going into matches like that.

“[In the second set] I feel like I was coming back to what was working for me – some of the points I was falling off and not playing aggressive. Once I knew that I was stepping up a bit more consistently.”

Azarenka now faces Pegula, who also extended a dominant head-to-head to reach her first career quarter-final on grass after the American dispatched Pliskova in just one hour and 15 minutes.

The Czech, also a former World No 1, was let down by her errors and conceded the opening set with a drive volley that sailed over the baseline on set point before fading in the second and firing another wild forehand on match point, committing 28 unforced errors in the process.


Garbiñe Muguruza used her serve to get out of trouble against Elena Rybakina at LTTC Rot-Weiß e.V. on Thursday

© Boris Streubel/Getty Images

While Pliskova’s last-16 exit came a day after the top 3 seeds crashed out of Berlin, Muguruza had no such problems.

The 6th seed from Spain’s win over Rybakina saw her record successive wins on grass for the first time since clinching the Wimbledon title in 2017.

The 6-4 6-3 scoreline belies how narrowly-contested the battle was, though, as Rybakina, fresh off a maiden major quarter-final run at Roland Garros, delivered plenty of highlights while striking 35 winners to 20 unforced errors.

Muguruza needed all of her experience to withstand the barrage, and was able to raise her game in the crucial moments, saving 6 of the 7 break points she faced, and converting 4 of the 5 she orchestrated on Rybakina’s serve.

Having taken control to lead 4-2 in the first set, a flurry of unplayable forehands from Rybakina pegged her back to 4-4, but Muguruza responded with a brilliant lob, then retained her focus after an incident in the crowd delayed play before closing out the set.

The quality of the tennis rose to spectacular heights in the second, which saw 5 knife-edge games go to deuce, with Muguruza eventually coming out on top of every one, which included saving all 6 break points she faced, the majority with clutch serves.

Rybakina was unable to translate her breathtaking shotmaking into scoreboard reward as the Kazakh, who was celebrating her 22nd birthday, fought valiantly with all her wide array of weaponry.

The final 2 games of the match were mini-thrillers of their own, with Rybakina coming up with fine drop-shots, bold drive volleys and moving backwards to sear winners down the lines.

Muguruza held firm to win the 2 consecutive 5-deuce marathons, sealing it on her 2nd match point with a heavy backhand return to book her quarter-final date with Cornet.

“It’s a very beautiful day, but for tennis it’s tough, and for the crowd it can be tough as well, so thank you all for coming and staying the whole day watching us,” Muguruza said in her on-court interview.

The former World No 1 has shaken off an opening round Roland Garros loss with a winning return to grass-court action and is yet to drop a set in Berlin as she braved both the heat and an impressive challenge from Rybakina, who upset Serena Williams en route to the last eight in Paris.

“We’ve practiced many times and I’ve watched her; she’s playing great the last couple of years. I knew I had to be very focused on the return and serve, so I managed pretty well,” Muguruza added.

“I think we should all fight for every point, but today it was the key. Even if I was down 0-40, I was going to try and hit the ball with my wristband if it was necessary, so I’m very happy with my fighting spirit.”

Also on Thursday, 22-year-old qualifier Liudmila Samsonova upset fellow Russian Veronika Kudermetova 6-4 6-3 to set up a clash with American Madison Keys after an hour and 20 minutes.

Samsonova broke Kudermetova’s serve twice in the match and didn’t face a single break point.

Following this win, the 106th-ranked Samsonova will break into the top-100 of the WTA ranking for the first time, achieving this in style after pulling off consecutive Top 50 upsets in Berlin to reach her second WTA quarter-final, and first at WTA 500 level.

Against Kudermetova, she was impregnable on serve, dropping just 11 points behind her delivery in total.

She was also sharp in taking advantage of the rare opportunities she had on her compatriot’s serve, converting 2 of the 3 games in which she held break point, including a ferocious forehand return winner to seal the first set.





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