Rome | Sabalenka lines up Collins for a place in the final

Aryna Sabalenka and Danielle Collins are lining up to contest the semi-finals at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome after both recorded straight set wins over Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka respectively on Wednesday.

I'm going out with a bang. I want to go out playing my best tennis because I certainly wouldn't want to go out playing my worst tennis. That does happen sometimes, unfortunately. It's important for me to feel like I got everything I could out of myself as an athlete. Danielle Collins

There was no sign of Sabalenka’s ailing lower back issue as she efficiently defeated Ostapenko, the 9th seed from Latvia, in 72 minutes, 6-2 6-4.

“I was testing my body on the warm-up and I felt, ‘OK, I’m probably going to go on the court and play’,” she told reporters about the injury she suffered in her Last 16 encounter with Elina Svitolina. “And I’m super happy I was able to play without pain today. Hopefully, with every day, I will feel better and better.

“I would definitely say that was the best performance of the tournament.”

The Belarusian World No 2 controlled the match from the get-go, winning 81% of her first serves, while she  did not face a single break point and converted 3 of her 7 break chances.

Sabalenka fired 12 winners to her 11 unforced errors, while Ostapenko had 18 of each.

The Latvian was seeking her second consecutive semi-final berth in Rome, and although she won the opening game of the match, Sabalenka broke her twice as she rattled off 5 games in a row to pocket the set.

The second was a tighter affair, but it was Sabalenka who broke through first, taking the 7th game to go up 4-3, and the rest was history as Ostapenko’s challenge faded, the Latvian going out of the tournament with 150 overall in her 4 matches after the No 2 seed fired 2 aces to close out the match.

“With this amazing atmosphere, and with this amazing support — that’s why I’m super motivated here and that’s why I always say that this is the dream tournament for me to win,” said Sabalenka on court. “I really enjoy playing here, so I don’t have to think about being focused.

“I’m just here enjoying it, and doing everything I can to win every point I play, no matter what the score. I guess that’s the key.”

Jelena Ostapenko (R) mounted a sterner challenge in the second set but Aryna Sabalenka prevailed in two

© Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

In the semi-finals, Sabalenka will face Danielle Collins, the 13th-seeded American who defeated No 24 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 6-4 6-3, later on Wednesday.

Sabalenka beat Collins in 3 sets in the 4th-round at the Mutua Madrid Open, which was a rare defeat for the American this season, who has won 19 of her past 20 matches, earning titles at the Miami Open and the Charleston Open.

In January, Collins announced she will retire from the WTA Tour at the end of the year, and has hit a red-hot streak since, despite the tight loss at the hands of the World No 2.

Now Collins gets the chance to avenge that defeat against Sabalenka as she takes on the Belarusian in the semi-finals after her win over former World No 1 Azarenka.

With a career-high ranking of No 7 in July 2022, Collins is just a win away from a return to the Top 10 of the WTA Rankings, which is a remarkable achievement for a player who was ranked at No 63 in mid-February.

“I’m going out with a bang,” Collins said. “I want to go out playing my best tennis because I certainly wouldn’t want to go out playing my worst tennis. That does happen sometimes, unfortunately. It’s important for me to feel like I got everything I could out of myself as an athlete.”

Danielle Collins' grit and fire came to the fore against Victoria Azarenka as she set up a Last 4 encounter with Aryna Sabalenka

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

With her confidence flowing and her power-packed game proving to be too much for most of her rivals, the 30-year-old is playing the best tennis of her career, and this came to the fore against Azarenka, who struck first, breaking Collins for a 2-0 lead in the opening set.

The Belarusian then played a poor service game to hand the advantage back, striking 3 consecutive double-faults to help the American get herself on the board, and, from there, Collins was off to the races.

She controlled the centre of the court and overpowered Azarenka with her flat, aggressive shots, pulling the 24th seed from corner to corner.

After building a 5-2 lead, Collins failed to serve out the set on her first chance, but responded by breaking Azarenka for the opener.

Collins continued her march to lead 4-1 in the second, but after failing to convert 2 break points for a 5-1 lead, she played her poorest game of the match to allow Azarenka to narrow the gap to 4-3.

Responding with her signature grit, Collins stepped up to the line and struck 3 consecutive winners to earn triple break point, and then went on to break and serve out the win after 1 hour and 44 minutes.

“I’ve been practicing well,” Collins said. “I had to just stay dialled in there. I’ve gotten better at hitting the small parts of the court.”

Collins finished with 27 winners to 24 unforced errors, while holding Azarenka to 10 winners to her 20 miscues.

“It’s super rewarding because you go through periods where you might take three steps forward and four steps back some weeks,” Collins said. “It’s kind of like the stock market. It’s really up and down sometimes.

“So it’s been nice to have a stretch when I’ve just been climbing, because it’s not always like that. You have to be really happy for yourself in these moments because it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Victoria Azarenka failed to capitalise on her early lead and lost her quarter-final in straight sets to Danielle Collins on Wednesday evening

© Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

Collins joins World No 3 Coco Gauff to put two Americans into the semi-finals for the first time since Rome hosted an all-American final between Serena Williams and Madison Keys in 2016.

Sabalenka holds a commanding 5-0 head-to-head over Collins, including that dramatic Round-of-16 match from Madrid last month when she overcame a sluggish start to win 4-6 6-4 6-3, and it can be argued that it kicked her into the form that then carried the Belarusian to the final.

“Yeah, that was definitely like a good slap,” she told reporters. “She played incredible tennis and somehow I was able to turn the game around.

“If I’m going to face her, hopefully, I won’t let her get to the point where she’s almost closing the match.  I’ll start better from the beginning.”

Iga Swiatek last played Coco Gauff at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun when the Pole won in straight sets

© Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Gauff faces the World No 1 Iga Swiatek in the other semi-final on Thursday, but the Pole goes into the match with a heavy head-to-head advantage, and, given that she has only spent a minimal time on court, she should be able to recover sufficiently to play against either Sabalenka or Collins in what could prove to be a very feisty final affair.

Swiatek has not dropped a set here yet and, in fact, has lost only 21 games in her 4 matches, while her serve is working extremely well, her decision-making is exceptionally clean, and she is clutch under pressure.

Even when opponents manage to score a break opportunity, Swiatek has somehow saved 19 of 23 points.

Swiatek’s win over Madison Keys in the quarter-finals lifted her rankings point total to 11,085, equalling her highest. The only other player to exceed 11,000 points was Serena Williams, the acknowledged GOAT of modern-era tennis.

The Pole’s biggest advantage over Gauff, though, is a hulking 9-1 head-to-head record, and this includes 3-0 on red clay.

Gauff’s erratic serve continues to still be a work in progress, and while she coughed up 41 double-faults in her 4 matches, only 6 came in her quarter-final against Zheng Qinwen.

“It feels like a new start for me,” Gauff said of her coming match against Swiatek. “This is my first time playing her on clay since Roland Garros last year. I feel like a different player.

“I’m coming into these matches with a lot of confidence. If I can go into the match playing like I did tonight [against Zheng], win or lose, I think I have a lot to be proud of.”



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