Rome | Two-time defending champion Svitolina loses on her debut, Pliskova advances swiftly

A few surprises animated Tuesday’s matchday at the Premier 5 event in Rome, involving fallen seeds and withdrawals. The biggest upset was the elimination of two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina, who lost her debut against surging veteran Victoria Azarenka despite a double break lead in the third set.

Obviously, movement is very important on clay court, and I feel like I’m getting better and more accustomed to clay. Especially this year, I feel a lot more at ease on clay. Victoria Azarenka

V. Azarenka (Blr, 51, WC) d. E. Svitolina (Ukr, 6, seeded 5th) 4-6 6-1 7-5 

Elina Svitolina’s negative clay season continued on Tuesday, when her reign as the queen of the International d’Italia came to an end against former WTA No.1 Vika Azarenka after two hours and 14 minutes, in match that she had already won, before breaking down within an inch of the finish line like a Bond villain.

The draw was certainly not indulgent with Svitolina, pitting against an opponent that had already showed signs of competitiveness in Madrid last week, when she took Sloane Stephens to a decider, besides from her big stage habitual fearlessness, which would ultimately prove the defining trait of the encounter. Azarenka, now No.51 in the rankings after a maternity hiatus and a few off-court vicissitudes, doesn’t usually play at her best on clay, due to her not overwhelming natural pace, having won only one tournament on the surface (in Marbella, in 2011), but she had played well in Rome in the past, reaching the final in 2013, and led 2-0 in her head-to-head with Svitolina, although their last meeting had occurred in 2015, and they had never met on the red brick. Both players revel in a good rally, and possess fierce groundstrokes, so the little crowd left in the cool stands knew that they could be in for a long one.

Azarenka was off to a rocky start, missing two routine forehand volleys to let Svitolina take a 0-30 head start in the second game, but then showing her tactical acumen by hitting a backhand down the line at the right time, creating the environment for a forehand swinging volley, saving herself on that occasion. However, her initial low percentage of first serves and a diesel beginning mobility-wise puts her under threat in the next service game as well, and this time the sword fell right on her cranium, as Svitolina won a lengthy rally (one of many), hitting forcefully to her body as soon as the pressure let off. The Ukrainian was very aggressive on the break point, hitting down the line with resolve and moving Azarenka around to close at the net, racing to 3-1. The two-time Slam champion was soon off her feet though, and struck back immediately with a nice forehand variation, before saving three break points in the sixth game to level things at 3-3. Azarenka then missed a sitter, hitting a backhand down the line to break in the seventh, and paid the ultimate price in the tenth game, when a bleed double fault and Svitolina’s strategic savviness trounced her, as the Ukrainian kept pressuring her down the middle, forcing her to open the angles on which to slither and strike, earning two set points in the process, and eliciting a terminal forehand mistake to conquer the first mountaintop in 47 minutes.

However, Azarenka came firing out of the gates, expecting to be fired at, taking care to step slightly aside to swing as her footwork finally settled in, and exploiting Svitolina’s weak second serve – she won an abysmal 11% of points on her second serve, and eight double faults. A good forehand angle and a fiery return provided her with a mood-setting break chance, which she capitalised on without toiling, as the Ukrainian’s second serve landed blandly into the net.

After a rain delay, which slowed down the court even more, Svitolina was readier, breaking back with little effort, but then Azarenka won five games in a row to take the second set (with a further, legthier wet interlude), stepping into the court with her shrieky grunts a little more, putting a healthy 85% of first serves in, and profiting from a sloppier opponent. Now the middle of the court was her sacred ground, and she proceeded to break to love in the fifth and in the seventh games, forcing a third set.

Svitolina wasn’t buried yet though, and managed to push Azarenka behind the baseline with some deep returns and acute vectors, seizing a break point and passing on a risible drop shot. Azarenka appeared to have given her all, and got easily broken again in the fifth game, behind a pinpoint backhand down the line from the defending champion. However, when things seemed channeled towards an obvious conclusion, it was Azarenka who started to hit down the middle, while also targeting Svitolina’s backhand with the return, and took back one of the breaks with an overhead on the heels of a lucky volley let through by the tape, before another twist saw Svitolina starting to hit her forehand in Super HD and break once more to serve for the match at 5-2.

Then, as a forehand mishit set her up with a match point, the unconceivable happened. An excellent wide serve elicited a short, high Azarenka return, on which Svitolina incredibly missed a swinging forehand volley. Her entourage smiled nervously, and had every right to do so, for Azarenka grew bulkier by the second, and hit a forceful forehand down the line to get a break point, and howled into the night after a backhand left Svitolina a few feet away.

The Ukrainian had one more service game to win, but couldn’t get to a match point, despite two deuces, and got broken with a Jedi-like body parry by Azarenka. She didn’t give in yet, forcing a deuce in the tenth game after a deep moonball attempt by Azarenka, but a forehand deflected by the tape finally thwarted her spirit, and after a few more gruelling rallies, she bowed out with a final feeble second serve, promptly assaulted by Azarenka’s backhand, and the 30-year-old from Belarus looked the least surprised about having turned things around, proving herself truly indomitable. It was ultimately a shame that such drama had to take place in the second round, but if Vika keeps playing this way, their next meetings will occur much later in the draws. Azaremla will now play Garbiñe Muguruza or Danielle Collins next, if the weather will be kind enough to let them take the stage.

 Karolina Pliskova combines harmony and brutality in her serve.

Karolina Pliskova combines harmony and brutality in her serve.

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K. Pliskova (7, seeded 4th) d. A. Tomljanovic (Aus, 47) 6-3 6-3

It was very windy and cold, so I think we were not really playing our best tennis. But I was a little bit better.              – Karolina Pliskova

Fourth seed Karolina Pliskova is trying to hit her stride on clay, after after a tough, illness-marred beginning to her campaign, and looked a lot more assured on Tuesday as she beat Aussie Ajla Tomjanovic in an hour and 11 minutes. The two share similar traits, with a strong emphasis on powerful serving and flat groundstrokes (although Pliskova’s movement and degree of consistency is on a different scale from those of her foe), and don’t usually give their best on the dirt (although Tomljanovic reached the semis in Rabat a few weeks ago), since the high and bad bounce can disrupt their rhythm quite a bit, with the Czech specifically experiencing acute malaise in Rome – her career record in the event was two wins and four losses before today’s match.

In the end, the adverse conditions of the early days favoured the better returner: Pliskova exploited the molasses effect of the slow court and non-stop rattled Tomljanovic on her own serve, creating 14 break opportunities despite her opponent’s good first serve rate of 60%, offering her no way out.

After a slow start connoted by quick points and a few errors on both sides, Pliskova found her rhythm and put two first serves back into play, stunning Tomljanovic, who missed without much prompting and conceded a 3-1 lead. Offered a finger, Karolina tried to take the whole arm, racing through a hold and building a 0-40 lead that would have all but given her the opening half. Even though the world No.47 survived that game, finding more accuracy and pace on the serve to save those and two more break points (despite still winning almost literally no rallies, often not getting past the net, the mistake coaches advise to avoid at any cost, although for sure, it’s generally better to avoid misses in general), the substance more or less didn’t change, as Pliskova glided through the final two holds of the set, leaving only the occasional morsel to her opponent, hitting an unreturned to the T to finish in 36 minutes.

The second set was even more lopsided. Pliskova broke immediately, even trying to lengthen the points with more spin on her strikes (probably to tune her weapons a little more), and in a few minutes pulled through again with a glowing forehand down the line. The new strategy, while long-sighted, exposed her to the risk of letting her opponent back into the match, and she was forced to save two break points in the third game with a stop volley and a drop shot, before actually getting broken for the first and only time, taking some feathers out of her pillow for a 4-3 lead. However, things never got out of hand, and in five minutes Piskova won the final two games, ending on a forehand error elicited by a good cross-court forehand. Her next opponent, on Thursday, will be an American, either Sofia Kenin or thirteenth seed Madison Keys.

The matchday saw two high-profile withdrawals: Caroline Wozniacki was forced to retire for the second straight week, owing to a left lower leg issue, right after losing the first set against Danielle Collins, while Jelena Ostapenko gave up while 6-2 5-4 down against Michael Buzarnescu. Moreover, Madrid semi-finalist Belinda Bencic kept her good run going by staging a comeback against twelfth seed Anastasija Sevastova. Here are the other results:

M. Buzarnescu (Rom, 29) d. J. Ostapenko (Lat, 27) 6-2 5-4 ret.

A. Barty (Aus, 9, seeded 8th) d. V. Kuzmova (Svk, 43) 4-6 6-3 6-4

M. Vondrousova (Cze, 44) d. B. Strycova (Cze, 40) 1-6 6-4 7-6 (4)

K. Mladenovic (Fra, 63, Q) d. C. Garcia (Fra, 22) 6-1 6-2

J. Goerges (Ger, 18, seeded 16th) d. S.-W. Hsieh (Tpe) 6-3 6-4

M. Sakkari (Gre, 39, Q) d. A. Pavlyuchenkova (Rus, 36) 6-1 7-5

D. Kasatkina (Rus, 21) d. I.-C. Begu (Rom, 113, Q) 6-2 7-6 (5)

A. Cornet (Fra, 53, Q) d. A. Sabalenka (Blr, 10, seeded ninth) 6-1 6-4

C. Suarez Navarro (Spa, 31) d. D. Yastremska (Ukr, 41) 6-4 1-6 6-3

D. Collins (USA, 30) d. C. Wozniacki (Den, 12, seeded 11th) 7-6 (5) ret.

B. Bencic (Swi, 15) d. A. Sevastova (Lat, 13, seeded 12th) 2-6 6-3 6-2

On a side note, Serena Williams announced that she won’t be able to face her sister Venus on Wednesday due to an unresolved left knee issue – ironically, she was forced to back out in Miami after beating the same opponent, Rebecca Peterson.



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