Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur made it into the quarter-finals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart on Wednesday, while Coco Gauff and Elena Rybakina opened their campaigns with wins over Veronika Kudermetova and Jule Niemeier respectively to reach round 2, but 8th-seeded Maria Sakkari succumbed to Karolina Pliskova.
It’s tough, but an interesting challenge, to play the first match against a Grand Slam champion. It is something unique, like, you’re never going to play the first round against a Grand Slam champion in the bigger tournament. I think it’s a good preparation before the bigger tournament. You play only tough matches from the first round, so I think it’s a good tournament to play before going into the big tournaments. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka, the No 2 seed from Belarus, comprehensively beat Czech Barbora Krejcikova, 6-2 6-3, in an hour and 15 minutes.
“I’m super happy with this win, it’s always a tough match against Barbora,” Sabalenka said afterwards. “I think [my] serve was really working well today.
“On the return, I put a lot of pressure on her, so she didn’t have that much time.”
The Australian Open champion has reached the final in Stuttgart for the past 2 years, but has yet to win the clay-court tournament, while Krejcikova has shown her prowess on the surface by winning the French Open in 2021, but she has got past Sabalenka just once in 6 career meetings.
That sole win came en route to winning the WTA 1000 title in Dubai, but Sabalenka exacted her revenge by defeating Krejcikova in the Round of 16 of both WTA 1000 Sunshine Double events at Indian Wells and Miami.
The World No 2 said the win on Wednesday would give her a confidence boost ahead of Roland Garros, which begins on 28 May on Parisian clay.
“It’s tough, but an interesting challenge, to play the first match against a Grand Slam champion,” said Sabalenka, who received a bye in the opening round. “It is something unique, like, you’re never going to play the first round against a Grand Slam champion in the bigger tournament.
“I think it’s a good preparation before the bigger tournament. You play only tough matches from the first round, so I think it’s a good tournament to play before going into the big tournaments.”
Sabalenka has never reached the second week in Paris, bowing out in the 3rd-round at the last 3 editions, but the 24-year-old said earlier in the week that it was not the Parisian clay that was the problem.
“I was just struggling with the Grand Slams before, and it was more about me really wanting to win a Grand Slam, and me getting really crazy on matches, than something about the clay,” she revealed on Tuesday. “Because clay is good there, and it’s one of the best clay courts there.
“I really like the courts, and, hopefully, this year I’ll be able to do well.”
Against Krejcikova, Sabalenka held command from start to finish, slamming down 10 aces, winning 88 percent of her first-service points, and never facing a break point in making her 21st match-win of the season.
She took control by grinding out a long tussle at 3-2, finally converting her 4th break point of that game after a Krejcikova double-fault, and, 2 games later, a backhand return winner gave Sabalenka her second straight break of the Czech serve, and the one-set lead.
Krejcikova came undone early in the second as well, when she coughed up another double-fault, down break point, to hand a 2-0 lead to Sabalenka, which proved to be the only service break by either in the set.
On her Stuttgart main-draw debut this year, the Czech saved a match point on her own serve at 2-5, but Sabalenka fired off 3 aces in the next game, including on her 2nd match point, to advance into the Last 8 in Stuttgart once again.
Earlier, Jabeur, the No 3 seed from Tunisia, came from behind to beat Latvia’s Ostapenko, 1-6 7-5 6-3.
After a rocky start to the season, which included minor knee surgery in January, the 28-year old has struggled with her form and her patience, admitting that she had returned to match play too soon, but she has re-bounded, and, in just her 3rd tournament back, Jabeur rolled to the title in Charleston.
“Charleston was, honestly, an unexpected title,” Jabeur admitted. “For me, I was taking it one step at a time. I was trying to find more motivation and just finding my rhythm on the court.
“I was very, very patient, even though sometimes it did not go my way.
“I know during practices I’m playing really well with other players, and now just will continue and do that. The key was for me to be patient and wait for my game to come back.”
On Wednesday night, she continued her patient, confident run of form, storming back from just 4 points away from an early exit, to advance to her second straight Stuttgart quarter-final.
Ostapenko and Jabeur had split their two previous matches on the Hologic WTA Tour level, and the Latvian proved quicker out of the blocks, coming off her emphatic 58-minute win over Emma Raducanu.
She needed just 30 minutes to race past Jabeur in the first set, and continued in that vein until she found herself serving for the win at 6-1, 5-4, when Jabeur raised her level to reel off 11 of the next 13 points to earn a pair of set points at 6-5, 15-40.
Ostapenko did well to save 3 set points, and earned 2 points to force a tiebreak, but Jabeur finally closed out the set on her 4th chance to force the contest into a final set.
“Definitely patience was one of the keys today, but I think most importantly was accepting that she was doing great and hitting winners,” Jabeur said. “After all, it’s her game.
“For me, I was, like, Okay, she cannot play like this the whole match. If she does, then she deserves to win, obviously.
“For me, I just think, especially on the return games, the moment I stayed patient, the better that I played, especially just returning one ball and give it more spin. That’s where I think I was getting more and more rhythm.”
Having turned the momentum around, Jabeur took firm control in the third set, breaking Ostapenko to lead 4-2, and saving a break point in her final service game to seal her 6th consecutive win after 2 hours and 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, 5th-seeded Gauff fought off a deciding-set come-back by Veronika Kudermetova to win 6-2 4-6 7-6(3), and move into the 2nd-round.
Gauff’s Russian opponent won 4 straight games to take the second set from 2-4 down, and came back from 3-5 down in the decider to force a tiebreak before the 19-year old American finally secured the win, lining up yet another Russian next, Anastasia Potapova, next.
The young American registered 53 unforced errors to 24 winners, while Kudermetova had 80 unforced errors to 35 winners, and, with 15 breaks of serve in total, the momentum in the match swung heavily.
Gauff is playing her first tournament since splitting with her coach, Diego Moyano, following the Miami Open.
“I wouldn’t say, like, I don’t think I will ever be like Rybakina, who can really literally hit someone off the court,” Gauff told the media of her change of tactics. “I think more, so the way I want to play is being aggressive on the right shots.
“I think the tiebreaker I did really well in that,” she added. “A lot of the shots I hit were, kind of, close to the line, but I think those are the shots that I know I can make.
“I missed a couple of those earlier in the match, but it’s the fact that I went for them, I think that’s when I made them when I needed to.”
Meanwhile, reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina from Kazakhstan, who won 5 games in a row to seal a 7-5 6-3 win over German No 1 Niemeier after trailing 1-3 in the second set, plays Beatriz Haddad Maia from Brazil for a spot in the Last 8 on Thursday.
Playing each other for the 3rd time in 4 tournaments, Pliskova beat Sakkari, 6-2 6-3, to set up a 2nd-round meeting with Donna Vekic from Croatia.
The Czech takes a 4-3 lead in career meetings against the Greek, who eliminated her in the 3rd-round at Indian Wells last month before going on to reach the semi-finals.