The two top seeds were up-ended at the bett1open in Berlin on Wednesday as both Aryna Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina fell in their opening rounds to Madison Keys and Ekaterina Alexandrova respectively, joined by Bianca Andreescu at the exit door and leaving Belinda Benic as second favourite for the title behind Karolina Pliskova.
I was very motivated today, I really wanted this match. I had great sensations in my first round already. Today, especially in the beginning of the match, I was playing very well. But you know Bianca, she's fighting til the end - she came back and I got pretty tight. Alizé Cornet
Keys took out Sabalenka, 6-4 1-6 7-5, to reach the quarter-finals of the German Open, while Alexandrova swept past Svitolina, 6-4 7-5, and Alizé Cornet edged out Andreescu, 7-6(2) 7-5.
Ranked 28, Key hit 8 aces and outlasted the World No 4 to win in just under 2 hours for her 8th career win over a Top 5 opponent, and the first time she has reached the quarter-finals of a WTA event since January 2020, when she finished as the runner-up in Brisbane.
The 26-year-old American is going for her 3rd singles title on the grass after wins at Eastbourne in 2014 and Birmingham two years later.
On Wednesday she demonstrated the sort of form which saw her reach the US Open final 4 years ago and make the world’s top 6.
Keys struck 31 winners to just 17 unforced errors in the clash, and saved 10 of the 14 break points she faced to eke out the win.
Former World No 7 Keys is attempting to rise back up the rankings and her power game was in full effect in the opening stages as she zipped to a 4-0 lead before Sabalenka eventually got her feet under her and steered the set back to 4-3, when the American stopped the run by holding for 5-3 with a backhand winner down the line.
At 5-4, 30-30, Keys slammed 2 superb serves consecutively to grit out a close hold and claim the opening set.
The second, however, went all Sabalenka’s way as the Belarusian reeled off 5 straight games from 1-all, with Keys twice dropping serve with double-faults on break point at 2-1 and 4-1.
Sabalenka saved 3 break points herself while serving for the set at 5-1, but the top seed prevailed with well-timed service winners, including one on her 3rd set point.
Extending her momentum into the decider, Sabalenka broke Keys in the opening game, but the American got back on track, firing a forehand passing winner to break back for 2-2.
They each saved an additional break point mid-set with strong serving and deft net play to keep level through 5-5, when spectacular deliveries helped Keys nudge ahead and grab her chance.
A nimble drop-shot winner brought Keys to 30-30 at 5-6 when Sabalenka’s netted miscue set up the American’s’ first match point on which the top seed struck her forehand long, and Keys claimed the crucial break to close out the upset win.
Keys will face a Russian in the quarter-finals in either Veronika Kudermetova or qualifier Liudmila Samsonova, who will meet in their second-round clash on Thursday.
Meanwhile, it was 4th time lucky for Alexandrova as she took out Svitolina, delivering an immaculate serving performance in the first set and pulling off a gritty comeback in the second, saving 7 set points as Ukrainian served for it.
Previously, the Russian had lost all 3 encounters with Svitolina, including missing 2 match points in the third round of Abu Dhabi in January, but grass suits Alexandrova.
“I really like playing on grass,” said Alexandrova afterwards. “I was looking forward to it.”
The World No 34 landed 79% of her first deliveries in the opening set and consequently did not face a break point.
At 3-3, she slammed 3 consecutive forehand winners to capture the crucial break of Svitolina’s serve.
Having found just 3 winners in the first set, Svitolina upped her aggression to strike 10 in the second, and Alexandrova found herself facing break points in each of her first 3 service games.
Although the Russian saved the first 6, she found the net with a backhand to hand the 2nd seed a 4-2 lead.
Svitolina stood on the verge of forcing a decider serving at 5-3, 40-0, but a double-fault started an unexpected turnaround and Alexandrova saved another 5 set points with winners, two helped by fortunate net-cords, and a 6th with a backhand return that was too hot for Svitolina to handle.
Suddenly, the momentum had flipped and Alexandrova, striking the ball with her first-set fluency again, reeled off the last 4 games, with Svitolina coughing up another double-fault to drop serve for the second time in a row.
“To play against Elina is always tough and I’m surprised I won in two sets,” said Alexandrova afterwards. “In my mind I was already focused on the third set – I think I was luckier in that important game, and when I broke her back it gave me more confidence.”
The result is Alexandrova’s 4th career Top 10 win, and puts her into her 5th quarter-final of 2021.
Alexandrova will bid to reach her first semi-final since the Gippsland Trophy in February against No 5 seed Belinda Bencic, who was the only seed to win on Wednesday, defeating Petra Martic, 6-3 6-4, in an hour and 23 minutes.
Bencic arguably provided the shot of the tournament when she fell, returned a volley while still on the ground and then jumped up to put away a backhand winner.
The 12th-ranked Swiss won 83 percent of her first-service points and successfully fended off each and every one of the 5 break points she faced as collected the critical service break in the first set at 3-2, which she claimed with a winning passing shot.
Bencic coolly moved through the remainder of the set, taking the one-set lead with a forehand crosscourt winner on her first set point.
The second was at a stalemate until 4-4, when Bencic won one of the best points of the season to break for a 5-4 lead, and she eased to victory from there, finishing the match in the next game with a backhand winner.
Elsewhere, Alizé Cornet provided another upset when she defeated the third-seeded Bianca Andreescu from Canada in straight sets in a little over 2 hours.
Andreescu was playing in the main draw of a WTA grass-court tournament for only the second time in her career, after Wimbledon 2017.
“At the beginning of the match I was feeling very good,” said Cornet. “I played some of my best tennis at the start of the match and I think I felt more comfortable than in the first round.
“The first match helped get me more comfortable on the surface but it was a huge battle playing a match that lasted over two hours and I am really happy that I got through.”
It was the No 3 seed who got off to a faster start, though, and earning two chances to break in the opening service game of the match but failing to convert.
Cornet took the lead in the next game and they stayed on serve until 4-2 when Andreescu made her chance to break and get back on serve.
At 5-4, the World No 63 Frenchwoman reached set point but Andreescu managed to save it with one of her big serves and held serve before going back on the offensive to earn another break point but, again, she couldn’t finish, and the set was decided in a tiebreak in which Cornet jumped out to a 4-1 lead and won it 7-2 to take the first set.
“I was very motivated today, I really wanted this match,” said Cornet afterwards. “I had great sensations in my first round already.
“Today, especially in the beginning of the match, I was playing very well. But you know Bianca, she’s fighting til the end – she came back and I got pretty tight.”
Cornet carried the momentum into the second frame and, in the first game, the Frenchwoman set up 2 break points with a stunning forehand winner and broke to take a 1-0 lead.
At 3-1 she went up a double break but the Canadian responded by breaking right back in the very next game.
At 4-3 Andreescu had a chance to go back on serve, which she converted to level the set at 4-4, and it stayed on track for 2 more games until it Cornet managed to get the crucial break to take a 6-5 lead and serve out the match.
“Emotionally it was tough – she was playing better and better and I was having less intention,” she said. “But it was good, I got myself together at 5-4 and I really tried to stay focused on what I have to do, and in the end it was 7-5.
”She’s a really talented player, she plays amazing and she is dangerous on every surface but, I think, today my experience on grass helped me.” Cornet added.
She will now face either Garbiñe Muguruza or Elena Rybakina in the quarter-finals.