Rome | Rybakina withdraws, Kenin fells Jabeur and Sabalenka survives another 3-setter

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome suffered the loss of its defending champion, Elena Rybakina, after the World No 4 withdrew from the WTA 1000 tournament because of illness.

I played two incredible weeks in Madrid. I had so many tough matches there. I guess [getting sick] was the payoff. But I'm happy that I started feeling better and I could get on court and keep fighting. Hopefully, with the days, I'll feel better tennis-wise and health-wise. Aryna Sabalenka

The Kazakh pulled out prior to her scheduled match against Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu on Court Centrale on Friday.

“I am disappointed to have to withdraw from Rome this year, but unfortunately I do not feel well enough to compete,” Rybakina said in a statement. “I have such good memories from last year and was looking forward to defending my title.

“Rome is so special to me, and I look forward to being back next year to reclaim my title and play in front of the Italian fans.”

In her pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday, the Stuttgart champion revealed that she had not practised in days because she needed to rest after her run to the Madrid semi-finals, where she lost to Aryna Sabalenka in a 3rd-set match tiebreak after edging her fellow countrywoman, Yulia Putintseva, 7-5, in the 3rd set of the quarter-finals.

“Well, I didn’t practice for, like, three, four days,” Rybakina admitted on Tuesday. “Today I managed to hit a bit. Yeah, I think that’s the way to keep on going, because it’s not easy with our schedule.”

Oceane Dodin from France replaced Rybakina in the Rome draw as a lucky loser, but later retired herself at 2-5 down, sending Begu into the round of 32 to meet 27th-seeded Belgian, Elise Mertens, who was a 6-1 6-4 winner over Czech Katerina Siniakova, a former doubles World No 1.

Rybakina’s departure opens up the third quarter of the draw, in which Maria Sakkari is now the highest seed, at No 5.

The Greek made short work of Varvara Gracheva, a Russian-born French qualifier, 6-2 6-2, on Friday to set up a Last 32 meeting with Anhelina Kalinina, last year’s finalist from Ukraine, who advanced after her compatriot, Lesia Tsurenko, pulled out of their 2nd-round match at 2-0 in favour of the No 30 seed.


Danielle Collins was quick going to the aid of Anna Blinkova when she twisted her ankle and was forced to retire at the start of the second set, sending the American into the Last 32 at the Foro Italico in Rome

© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The third quarter also includes red-hot Danielle Collins, who saw her opponent, Anna Blinkova suffer a horrific injury at the start of their second set when, 19 minutes into the first game, disaster struck as the Russian went over on her ankle, prompting the American to rush to her aid with towels and water before she was forced to retire.

Collins, who saw her recent winning streak since Indian Wells quashed by Aryna Sabalenka last week in Madrid, moves on to meet Caroline Garcia, the No 22 seed, after the Frenchwoman deflated local hopes by beating Italy’s Elisabetta Cocciaretto, 6-2 7-5(5).

Also in the third quarter is Victoria Azarenka, the 24th seed from Belarus, who came through a mighty clash with Poland’s Magda Linette, 6-7(5) 6-4 6-3, spending nearly 3 hours on court.

Azarenka, who is 34, came from a set and a break down, and, ultimately, needed 6 match points to get past Linette in their first meeting on clay, while the Belarusian improved her record to 4-2 against the 32-year old Pole.

She will meet Egypt’s Mayar Sherif in round 3, who dashed home hopes further by upsetting Jasmine Paolini, the 11th seed from Italy, 7-6(4) 6-4 6-3. after a 2 hour and 41 minutes battle.


Aryna Sabalenka (R) came from a set down to beat 22-year old qualifier Katie Volynets and get her Italian Open campaign under way

© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Meanwhile, in the fourth quarter of the draw, World No 2 Sabalenka came from a set down herself to see off a spirited challenge from Katie Volynets, an American qualifier, but Ons Jabeur, the 8th seed from Tunisia, found herself on the losing end against Sofia Kenin, the former Australian Open champion, who is also from the USA.

Following her Madrid final appearance, Sabalenka found herself in a pickle early on before rallying past Volynets, 4-6 6-3 6-2.

Steadying the ship, the 2nd seed broke for 4-2 in the second set, and won 10 of the last 13 games.

“Honestly, for someone who has been sick for four days, and couldn’t get out of bed, I think I played really quite well,” Sabalenka said later. “In the first set I just didn’t feel my tennis at all, I couldn’t feel the rhythm. Just different conditions. So in the second set, I said whatever, just do your best with what you have today.”

Sabalenka is an emotional individual who plays with passion, and the loss her Madrid title hurt.

“I suffer a little bit,” she admitted. “Last time I crashed my racquet, that’s how emotional I am. I just throw it out once, I was okay afterwards. When I was a kid, I was also crying, I was pissed.

“There was lots of different emotions going on. What I learned in the past is just the momentum. Yeah, now you lost, but you have thousands of opportunities to get that win. It’s just momentum, and you just have to be respective.

“You just have to accept the loss, and just move on, and work and try better next time. If you get to that stages, to the last stages of the tournaments, I mean, it’s impossible to win all of them.

“Sometimes you just have to lose to learn something. Then, maybe, on the bigger tournaments, or in the most important tournaments, you will remember the lesson and you’ll do better in the final.”

It has been a solid season for Volynets, a 22-year-old Californian, who notched up the first Top 10 win of her career over Jabeur at Indian Wells.

After a successful qualifying campaign to earn her main-draw spot, Volynets beat Wang Yafan in straight sets to set up her Sabalenka showdown, and she played a contained baseline game to take the 51-minute opening set, thanks, in part, to Sabalenka’s flurry of errors.

Looking to blast her way past Volynets, Sabalenka struck 15 unforced errors from the forehand side and 9 off the backhand wing, while the American countered with a combined 8.

Sabalenka’s frustration was evident throughout the opening set, but she reigned in her power in the second and forced Volynets to play through the points.

As she increased her margins and played through the middle of the court, the tactical change paid off, and, after saving 5 break points to hold to 2-1, Sabalenka settled down to break Volynets in her last two service games of the set, and forced the decider.

Five of her 6 matches in Madrid went the full distance, and she came through 4 of them, beating Linette, Robin Montgomery, Collins, and Rybakina, which helped her to problem solve on Friday night as she settled into a solid Plan B, and rode out the winner.

Sabalenka’s No 2 ranking is under threat for a second event in a row from World No 3 Coco Gauff, which makes for significant implications at the French Open because whoever goes to Paris as No 2 will not face 3-time champion Iga Swiatek until the final.

Things don’t get any easier for Sabalenka in Rome, as she faces Australian Open semi-finalist Dayana Yastremska next, after the Ukrainian saved match points to beat Germany’s Laura Siegemund earlier in the day, 4-6 7-5 6-2.

“I played two incredible weeks in Madrid,” Sabalenka said. “I had so many tough matches there. I guess [getting sick] was the payoff. But I’m happy that I started feeling better and I could get on court and keep fighting. Hopefully, with the days, I’ll feel better tennis-wise and health-wise.”


Sofia Kenin added to Ons Jabeur's woes on Friday, winning in 3 very tight sets

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Elsewhere, former finalist Jabeur was the upset victim of the day going down to former French runner-up Kenin, 7-5 2-6 6-4.

Jabeur, who is ranked 9th in the world, fell to the unseeded American in a gruelling match which lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes in the hot Rome sunshine.

After reaching the quarter-finals in Madrid, Jabeur, who in 2022 became the first Arab and Tunisian player to win a WTA 1000 title, looked to be on the right track, but she slumped to defeat on Friday, continuing a poor season in which the 29-year-old has had to deal with a chronic knee condition.

While Jabeur got a break to start the deciding third set, Kenin levelled, and eventually broke the Tunisian for the win.

“I’m feeling great, happy with the way I played,” Kenin said afterwards. “Definitely, I feel, like, I’ve come a long way. It’s going in the right direction. I feel, like, the hard work is paying off. The fact that I’m still fighting.”

Kenin, the World No 42, will face Rebecca Sramkova, a Slovakian qualifier, who took out Britain’s Katie Boulter, 6-4 7-6(8) in the 3rd-round.


A general view of the Pietrangeli Court with Elina Svitolina in action against home favourite Sara Errani on Friday afternoon at Foro Italico

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

In other Friday action, No 9 seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia saw off Russia’s Anastasia Potapova, 6-4 6-2, and takes on Sara Sorribes Tormo next, after the Spaniard upset another Russian, 20th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-3 1-6 7-5.

Former Rome champion Elina Svitolina, the 16th seed from Ukraine, cruised past former runner-up, Italy’s Sara Errani, 6-0 6-2, and will play Anna Kalinskaya, the No 23 seed from Russia, who dispatched Denmark’s Clara Tauson, a qualifier, 6-1 6-2, for a spot in the round of 16, and a possible crack at Sabalenka.


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