Rome | Swiatek and Sabalenka stay on course

Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka remain on track at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome for a repeat of the recent Madrid final, but both had to navigate stern challenges, while other contenders still include Coco Gauff, Zheng Qinwen, Jelena Ostapenko, Danielle Collins and Madison Keys, but Maria Sakkari’s hopes were upset by Victoria Azarenka.

I gave it all today. I couldn't give up. I couldn't leave the court. I felt, like, if my body allows me to play even 15 percent of my best tennis, I'm going to stay there, I'm going to fight. Aryna Sabalenka

Top seed Swiatek saw off Angelique Kerber, 7-5 6-3, to set up a quarter-final clash with Keys, the 18th seed from the USA, who easily beat Sorana Cirstea despite their match being interrupted by climate activists.

Play was suspended on the Pietrangeli show court for half an hour by a court invasion from protestors from Ultima Generazione (Last Generation), who, wearing orange vests, threw a liquid and confetti onto the clay surface.

Activists also disrupted play on Court 12, where a men’s doubles match was taking place, but, on the Grandstand, they were stopped before they could enter the stadium.

There were also protestors in the stands with at least one trying to glue their feet to the floor in order to hamper their removal.

“As soon as I saw them come over the barrier, my first thought was like, ‘Should I go tackle one of them?’ But I stopped myself,” Keys said. “And then the chair [umpire] started yelling at me to go sit down.”

The players retreated to the locker room, and the protesters did not resist when security intervened before police and firefighters also arrived to handle the situation.

“Obviously it’s not the greatest feeling when you’re on court, your first reaction is, kind of, your own safety,” added Keys. “It’s obviously something that’s becoming more of an occurrence and something that tournaments are going to have to figure out how to stop.”

Neither the incident, not the delay, seemed to dent Keys’ focus, as she eased past Cirstea, the No 28 seed from Romania, 6-2 6-1, in 60 minutes of actual play.

Madison Keys endured a 30 minute delay by climate activists but still easily got past Sorana Cirstea to meet Iga Swiatek in theLast 8

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

On Court Centrale, Swiatek, the World No 1 who has yet to drop a set and is favourite for a 3rd Foro Italico title before she begins her French Open title defence later this month, was made to battle by Kerber, a 3-time Grand Slam champion in her own right.

Kerber, who held the No 1 ranking for 34 weeks, returned to the tour in January after a year-long maternity leave.

Swiatek arrived in Rome off the back of a thrilling triumph in Madrid, her 3rd WTA 1000 title of the season after also winning at Doha and Indian Wells, but the 22-year-old Pole did not have it all her own way against the German, who is currently sitting at No 331, and is the lowest-ranked player to reach the Last 16 here.

“For sure, wasn’t easy,” said Swiatek, who is now into her 103rd week ranked No 1. “I’m happy in important moments at the end of both sets I was ready to break. I got my focus up a little bit. At the end, that’s what made the difference, so I’m happy.”

Swiatek battled to the first set in just under an hour and was frequently tested by the 36-year-old Kerber, who saved 5 set points in the 10th game, only to succumb 2 games later.

Kerber went 2-0 up in the second set, but Swiatek fought back and, after the Pole broke serve in the 8th game, she held steady to close out the match on her first match point when the German’s return went wide.

“I’m a perfectionist, but it’s impossible to play perfect tennis, so you always have to be humble and not take anything for granted,” said Swiatek. “The pressure is there, for sure, but this year has been pretty good for me. I started the season well, so I don’t feel like I have to chase anything.”

It was a 9th straight win for Swiatek, and the two-time Rome champion, who improved to 3-0 against Kerber, will face Keys in a rematch of the Madrid Open semi-finals.

After rehabbing her shoulder for the first 2 months of the season, Keys is surging again and has won 7 of her past 8 matches, with her only loss coming to Swiatek, who beat her 6-1 6-3 only a week ago.

World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka squeaked past Elina Svitolina in a match tiebreak at around 1am to set up a quarter-final meeting with Jelena Ostapenko on Wednesday

© Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Sabalenka, the World No 2, saved 3 match points to up-end two-time champion Elina Svitolina, the 16th seed from Ukraine, 6-4 1-6 7-6(7), coming from 0-2 down in the third set to advance to the quarter-finals in a match that finished well after midnight at the Foro Italico.

“I gave it all today,” Sabalenka said. “I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t leave the court. I felt, like, if my body allows me to play even 15 percent of my best tennis, I’m going to stay there, I’m going to fight.”

Svitolina took advantage of 22 Belarusian unforced errors to take the opener in 43 minutes, winning an impressive 82% of her first-serve points, but Sabalenka cleaned up her game and struck back in the second, striking 14 winners to just 3 from the Ukrainian, who mustered just 33%  behind her first serve in the set.

There was cause for concern for Sabalenka’s camp after levelling the match at a set apiece when she took a lengthy medical time-out and received treatment for her lower back and hip area.

Sabalenka quickly found herself down 2-0 in the third, and Svitolina looked primed to consolidate her break, leading 30-0 in the next game, but, after flailing wildly at a return and throwing her racket in frustration, the Belarusian dug in.

With 3 clean drop-shot winners, Sabalenka broke and eventually levelled the set to 2-2 before breaking again to forge ahead a 3-2.

The No 2 seed tried to serve it out at 5-4, but Svitolina responded with a break to love and charged into the lead to earn herself 2 match points, as Sabalenka, now reeling, went 5-6, 15-40 down, before the Belarusian played some remarkable corner-to-corner defence to wipe away those chances and force a match tiebreak.

After an exchange of mini-breaks, Sabalenka earned her first match point, but Svitolina’s tireless defence won out again, as she put away a short forehand winner to level the breaker.

Svitolina earned a 3rd match point on Sabalenka’s serve, but missed her forehand return wide, her chance now evaporating as the No 2 seed ran around her forehand return and closed out the match on her 2nd match point with one final swing to win just before 1.00am local time.

Once again, Svitolina opted against shaking hands with Sabalenka at the net, with the Ukrainian refusing to exchange pleasantries with a Belarusian at a time when her country is in the midst of a war with Russia that is supported by Belarus.

Sabalenka will face Jelena Ostapenko, the 10th seed, for a spot in the semi-finals on Wednesday, the Latvian having engineered her own come-back earlier in the day when she defeated Slovakian qualifier Rebecca Sramkova, 4-6 6-4 7-6(3), to make her 4th Rome quarter-final.

It will be the first meeting on clay between Ostapenko and Sabalenka, with the reigning Australian Open champion winning both of their prior meetings on hard court.

Zheng Qinwen had a point to make in defeating Naomi Osaka, and will take on Coco Gauff in the Last 8 on Tuesday

© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Also through to the quarters is 3rd-seeded Coco Gauff, the 20-year old American, who outlasted Spain’s Paula Badosa, 5-7 6-4 6-1.

Gauff, the reigning US Open champion, showed tremendous resilience, having struggled her with serving woes for much of the clay-court season, but she played clutch tennis when it counted to survive an inspired performance from the former World No 2 in 2 hours and 27 minutes on Grandstand Arena.

Badosa is struggling with injury, a chronic back injury forcing her to miss much of the 2023 season and causing her to drop out of the Top 100.

Despite her 11 total double-faults, Gauff eased through, converting her first match point when Badosa missed wide on a final forehand.

“I’ve been working on it,” Gauff revealed in her post-match press conference on Monday. “I think today, even though the double-faults were there, I think it was still a better performance than it was last [match].”

Up next for Gauff is No 7 seed Zheng Qinwen from China, who scored a strong win over former World No 1 Naomi Osaka, 6-2 6-5, earlier in opening match of the day, in what will be their first meeting.

Later, Zheng talked about the split with her former coach, Wim Fissette, who left her to work with Osaka.

“If you ask me this uhh… few months before, after we break, like, one month, two months, three months, four months, I will tell you yes absolutely, I got really fired up, I wanted to kill my opponents, I want to, you know, put my frustration out,” the Chinese No 1 said, claiming Fissette had breached their contract. “But you asked me right now, after many months 6-7 months already, I would say, you know, it’s just a normal match for me. I treat her like a usual opponent.

“Of course, I have more respect to her because she come back as a mother. I think as a woman athlete that’s really not easy, I have all the respect for all the tennis player woman who come back as a mother. Cause, only woman knows how difficult is that.”

Former No 1 Victoria Azarenka advanced to her 7th Internazionali BNL d'Italia quarter-final after posting a straight-sets upset win over Maria Sakkari in Rome on Monday.

© Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The last quarter-final to be determined is between Danielle Collins, the American 13th seed, and Victoria Azarenka, the No 24 seed from Belarus.

Collins has confirmed this will be her final season in tennis, and is on a remarkable run of good form that will see her rise into the Top 10 next week after storming into the Last 8 with an emphatic 6-0 6-3 win over Irina Camelia Begu from Romania.

“I’m so glad that I have been able to figure out some of the physical things I have needed to do to peak at the right time and to feel like I’m ready to go,” said Collins. “I’m living with a chronic inflammatory disease that affects your ability to get pregnant. That’s a deeply personal situation. I’ve explained that from time to time.

“At the end of the day, this [retirement] is my personal choice. This is so much more than just tennis and my career. I’m enjoying my career. I’m having a lot of fun.

“I love coming out here and competing, but this is a really big life decision and that should be pretty understandable.”

Collins will now take on fellow veteran Azarenka, who upset Maria Sakkari, the World No 5 from Greece, 6-4 6-1.



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