Top seed Iga Swiatek survived a scare until she found an answer to Victoria Azarenka’s aggression and advanced to win her 25th consecutive match at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome on Thursday, but 2nd-seeded Paula Badosa found herself outgunned well after midnight by Daria Kasatkina.
It doesn't really matter for me because every match is different. You could see that in many matches where I struggled this season, even though I won them. Anything can happen. Every match is a different story. I'm not really focusing on the stats. Really, I just want to get a better feeling on clay court. Iga Świątek
Also up-ended on Day 4 was 7th-seeded Danielle Collins, by compatriot Amanda Anisimova, but Aryna Sabalenka , the 3rd seed, reached the quarter-finals with an impressive win over Jessica Pegula, as did Maria Sakkari and Ons Jabeur, who meet each other next in the last 8.
Swiatek, the World No 1, who is the defending champion here in Rome, was outpaced by Azarenka as the Belarusian took a 3-0 lead before the Pole won 5 straight games in a gruelling first set that lasted an hour and 20 minutes, fighting back to win, 6-4 6-1, after 5 minutes shy of 2 hours’ play.
The No 1 seed got off to a poor start and was challenged by a rampant Azarenka, a former World No 1 herself and a 2-time Grand Slam champion, who dominated early proceedings on the red clay court at the Foro Italico.
In fact, Swiatek played more than twice as many points on her serve than Azarenka did, 98 to 47, as she struggled to find her range, and the Belarusian held at least one break point in each of her service games in the opener, generating a total of 11 break points.
“I didn’t start well, and everybody could see that,” the 20-year old told reporters. “I’m really happy with the way I reacted, and how I improved in the first set.
“Also how different the second set looked to the first one, because I could really reset, and really change the way I played. That’s the most positive thing for me.”
It also helped that Azarenka got rattled when an oblivious spectator entered the front row of the empty VIP section just behind her as she was facing a break point late in the opener, and the resultant double-fault handed Swiatek control of the set.
After swearing at the stewards to keep the gates shut, she slammed her racket in frustration and complained to the chair umpire about the mid-game interruption.
The real key game of the first set, however, was Swiatek surviving a 7-deuce game that wiped out 3 break chances as she held for a 4-3 lead, but Azarenka’s fight never wavered and as the World No 1 served for the set at 5-3, the 16th seed saved 4 set points before breaking to get back on serve.
Unruffled, Swiatek by now was returning with interest, and she broke Azarenka on her 5th set point to finally seal the set before dominating on return through the second, breaking the Belarusian 4 more times to close out the match and book her spot in a 5th straight quarter-final.
“It doesn’t really matter for me because every match is different,” Swiatek said. “You could see that in many matches where I struggled this season, even though I won them.
“Anything can happen. Every match is a different story. I’m not really focusing on the stats.”
When the dust finally settled on Court Centrale, though, Swiatek had won 12 of the last 14 games, finishing with 34 winners to 39 unforced errors, while Azarenka fired 18 winners to 31 unforced errors.
Swiatek will next face 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who eliminated Croatian qualifier Petra Martic, 6-4 6-4 to books her biggest quarter-final on clay.
“Really, I just want to get a better feeling on clay court,” Swiatek said. “I’m not really focusing on the scores or something.
“I know Bianca can play a really solid game. I’m pretty happy that she’s back because she has such a nice game. It’s more variety for women’s tennis.”
Andreescu missed the start of this season after struggling with the mental toll of breakthrough success as a teenager, but the Canadian, now 21, remains a major talent and is having her best week since reaching the final of the Miami Open more than a year ago.
Three tournaments into her comeback, Andreescu is making her debut in Rome, and her first-time encounter Martic, last year’s semi-finalist, saw her face a tough challenge with impressive sharpness against an experienced clay-court expert.
Now ranked 90, Andreescu proved superior on serve, landing 72% of her first deliveries compared to Martic’s 50%, and saving 6 of the 7 break points she faced while converting 3 out of 4 on the Croatian’s serve.
The first of the latter came at 4-4 in the first set and, with the match on a knife-edge, Andreescu seized control, swatting away a drive volley to move ahead.
Martic began to cough up double-faults as the second set got under way, and the Canadian continued to take advantage, slamming a forehand winner to break for 2-1, and although the Croatian broke back and held 2 points for a 4-2 lead, the World No 47 squandered them both.
She continued to be afflicted by double-faults, producing 6 in the second set alone, and the 5th handed the break back to Andreescu, who successfully served out the win by putting away a volley on her 3rd match point.
Looking forward to playing Swiatek, Andreescu said: “I’ve been watching Iga play, so I’m sure that’s going to be pretty tough because she also likes to change the rhythm. She’s a very strong fighter.”
Going on around 11pm, Spain’s Badosa never looked settled which was in direct contrast to Kasatkina, who seemed to relish the conditions in a match that featured more breaks of serve than holds before the Russian, playing as a neutral, battled past the World No 3, 6-4 6-4, in a contest that finished at 12.45am local time.
The World No 23 had endured 4 previous losses in the Rome Round of 16 and, after her 1 hour 46 minute win, claimed her 6th top 5 scalp out of her last 8 matches against such opposition
“I feel like my level is growing with every match,” Kasatkina said, after her win. “I’m pretty happy with my level today, and I hope I’m going to be the same or better tomorrow.”
Badosa had won their sole prior match handily, with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kasatkina in this year’s Sydney semi-finals on hard court but, in their first clay-court meeting, Kasatkina used her groundstroke depth and rally tolerance to upend Badosa.
Kasatkina was the more effective returner, converting 7 of her 17 break points and winning 71 percent of points against the Badosa second service.
Kasatkina will next meet World No 29 Jil Teichmann from Switzerland in Friday’s quarter-finals.
“Jil, now she’s in great condition, she just played the semis in Madrid,” Kasatkina said. “She already beat very good players.
“She’s lefty, it’s clay, so yes, it’s going to be a good match. … We’re the same age, we know each other pretty well, so I think it’s going to be fun.”
The swashbuckling Swiss, at a career-high of No 29, pulled off her 2nd 3-set upset on Pietrangeli of a Top 20 player, defeating Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan, 6-7(3) 6-3 7-5, in 3 hours and 2 minutes.
It is the second tournament in a row that Teichmann has taken out the Kazakh at the same stage, although her marathon Rome win was harder work than her straight sets win in Madrid.
This is Teichmann’s 13th career Top 20 win, with her 12th coming one day previously on the same court over Karolina Pliskova, the Czech 6th seed.
Earlier, 3rd-seed Sabalenka captured her 3rd straight win over Pegula, the 13th seed, 6-1 6-4, in a dominant power display to reach the Rome quarter-finals for the first time, extending her overall head-to-head against the American to 3-1, all wins coming in straight sets on clay.
Pegula, who reached her first WTA 1000 final last week in Madrid, managed to get back on serve after trailing 5-2 in the second set, but conceded defeat with a double-fault.
Elsewhere 4th seed Sakkari of Greece edged out another American Coco Gauff for the 4th time in 5 career meetings, 6-4 7-5, under the lights to make the quarters, her best showing at clay-court tournament so far this season after 1st and 2nd-round exits in Stuttgart and Madrid.
Gauff’s only prior win against Sakkari came 12 months ago at the Foro Italico, where the American 18-year old won a 3-setter on her way to the semi-finals.
Sakkari had to dig deep to see Gauff off in straight sets on this occasion and, leading 6-4, 3-1, the Greek had 2 points to break the American again to go up 4-1, ultimately winning the final 3 games.
The 4th seed moves through to a quarter-final meeting against Mutua Madrid Open champion Ons Jabeur, where she will attempt to stop the Tunisian’s winning streak at 9 to reach the last 4 in Rome for a second time.
Jabeur, the 9th seed from Tunisia, stopped Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, 6-3 6-2, in 61 minutes to reach the quarters for the first time in her career.
“Honestly, I feel good that it didn’t go over two or three hours, because I know she can have long matches,” Jabeur said afterward. “Pretty happy that I kept it simple.”
Putintseva, who was the No 1 seed in qualifying earlier this week, notched her first Top 10 win in nearly 3 years on Wednesday when she upset 8th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, but she could not pick up a second as Jabeur cruised to her 15th clay-court win of the season, which leads the tour thus far.
Jabeur fired 18 winners, won 74 percent of second-service return points, and fended off the only break point she faced all day, improving to 3-0 over Putintseva.
There was no separation between the players through 3-3 of the first set, but Jabeur took charge of the opener from there, cracking a number of excellent backhand returns to give her 2 straight breaks of the Putintseva serve and a one-set lead.
Jabeur eased to 4-2 in the second before she faced a break point, but the Tunisian used her drop-shot mastery to carve her way to a hold for 5-2, and she wrapped up the match in the next game with another backhand return forcing an error on her 3rd match point.
Next up for Jabeur is a quarter-final duel with Sakkari, with whom she has split their two previous meetings, with their most recent clash going the Greek’s way in Ostrava in 2020.
Jabeur said of Sakkari: “She’s a great player, a great friend on tour. … It’s gonna be a tough match. I know she plays really good: big serve, big forehand and really great backhand.
“Our last match was very close, I had my opportunities. I think I’m just going to go for it.”
Meanwhile, in the battle between Americans, Anisimova beat 7th-seeded Collins, 6-2 6-2, in just under an hour.
The 20-year-old reached her first WTA 1000 quarter-final last week in Madrid by beating Azarenka while, this week, she bounced back from being bagelled in her first-round match against Czech Tereza Martincova in a 3-set win before knocking off Tokyo gold medalist and 12th seed Belinda Bencic from Switzerland.
With pinpoint accuracy in her return games, Anisimova broke Collins’ serve 5 times, but she also benefitted from an off day by the World No 9, who had beaten former champion Simona Halep from Romania under the lights on Tuesday.
Collins made 24 unforced errors in 16 games and served up 6 double-faults.
Standing between Anisimova and the semi-finals is Sabalenka, against whom the American holds a 4-0 record, and has beaten her twice already on clay this spring in 3 sets, including in Madrid where she thwarted the Belarusian’s attempt to defend her 2021 title in the opening round.
The quarter-finals of both the women’s and men’s singles events are all scheduled to be played on Friday.