The first of the semi-finals being played at the Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney as one of Final Four matches following nine days of hectic United Cup activity in three of the country’s major cities, got underway with the USA, playing on ‘home’ ground (all their group ties were played there) against Poland who flew in from Brisbane some 24-hours earlier.
I played her today, conditions are totally different than anywhere else I played her. Obviously maybe I had a little bit of an advantage, they just flew in yesterday Jessica Pegula
A tight tie was expected so when Team USA, the third seeds, stormed into a 2-0 lead by claiming the two opening singles to establish a very commanding lead over their second seeded opponents with three rubbers to play on Saturday, it was surprising.
What was even more surprising was the loss of Poland’s world No1 – unbeaten throughout the event – to the American’s world No.3 which very much provided the US team with a large boost in confidence for the rest of the tie.
In addition, Jessica Pegula had lost to Swiatek in all three of their previous encounters last year having only beaten the current top ranked woman once prior to that in 2019, en route to her maiden title in Washington. And it was a more than satisfactory win conceding just 4 games to the Pole in 71-minutes!
“I played her today, conditions are totally different than anywhere else I played her. Obviously maybe I had a little bit of an advantage, they just flew in yesterday,” Pegula admitted after her 6-2 6-2 triumph.
“Definitely the fastest conditions I have played her [in]. Every other place I’ve played her has been pretty slow. I think that favoured me a lot, and I was able to use that to my advantage and play a really super clean match. I think I just was able to execute my game plan probably better than I have previous times.”
Swiatek was devastated at her loss and broke down in tears admitting that she felt helpless during the match.
Asked about those tears during the post-match press conference, Swiatek said that she hadn’t shown up physically or mentally for the match and hadn’t really turned up for the encounter.
The 21-year-old said: “Because I just knew that I felt kind of helpless today, because physically and mentally I wasn’t able to kind of show up even, and problem-solve. So it’s always hard when you lose, especially when you’re kind of playing for the team and your country. It was pretty hard for me to find any spot where I could come back.”
And she added in relation to her tears: “I was just sad. But, you know, it’s not the first time I cried after a lost match. Nothing special.”
In the match itself Swiatek had been slow to get going and lost the first seven points, five on her forehand. She recovered the early break with some searing winners, but Pegula had the bit between her teeth.
Pegula seemed thoroughly at home on a court she had competed on throughout her team’s group stages. The 28-year-old fired three clean return winners en route to a 4-1 lead, serving well and out-rallying her opponent on most occasions, ultimately posting 21 winners to the Pole’s 18.
Swiatek was simply unable to get a foothold on the match despite coming up with some excellent shots at times but was never able to build on them and counter Pegula’s growing confidence, losing just five points behind her serve in the second set whilst not facing a break point.
And that confidence was picked up by Frances Tiafoe when he stepped on court to play the second singles against Kasper Zuk who replaced Daniel Michalski who had gone with an illness.
The 24-year-old Tiafoe, who had enjoyed the best season of his career in 2022, made a quick start and never looked back. Although Zuk provided resistance, especially once the Pole fell behind early in the second set, he was unable to give the American any problems.
Tiafoe defeated him 6-3 6-3 after 80-minutes saving all five break points he faced.
“I didn’t even know my first opponent I was supposed to play. So, when they switched him, I was, like, Alright, great, I’m in the same position I was,” Tiafoe said later. “It was kind of, whatever. I was just going to kind of wing it and see what happens. Feel the guy out a little bit and kind of see what happens. Try to just worry about my side of the court and we’ll figure it out.”
The United States’ top men’s singles player, Taylor Fritz, world ranked 9, will have the opportunity to close out the tie Saturday morning when he takes on Hubert Hurkacz , ranked one place below him., who will attempt to keep the Poles in the match and extend the semi-final.
And the surprises weren’t restricted to the first of the semis, as Italy, the wild card in the Final Four on the basis of being the ‘best’ of the losing finalists in the three City Finals when they lost to Poland in Brisbane, pulled ahead of the top seeds, Greece, by winning their two opening singles.
Martina Trevisan won an epic opening rubber against Maria Sakkari while Lorenzo Musetti extended Team Italy’s lead over Team Greece to a commanding 2-0 and match the US’s performance earlier in the day.
Musetti, ranked 23, maintained his perfect record at the mixed-teams event when he defeated the teenage Stefanos Sakellaridis 6-1 6-1 in just 62 minutes.
While the young Greek made a quick start forcing Musetti to fend off a break point in the opening game from which point, the 20-year-old Italian took control with his heavier weight of shot and better consistency.
In the first rubber of the semi, Trevisan, ranked 27, pulled off her momentous hard-court win by upsetting the world No.6 Sakkari 6-3 6-7(4) 7-5 after three-hours and 15-minutes to establish it as the longest match of the inaugural United Cup to date.
Sakkari scored the first break of the match, but her game was as inhibited as Trevisan’s was not. From 0-2 down, the Italian surged through eight of the next nine games to lead by a set and a break thanks to some fierce forehands and exciting passing shot.
But the Greek battled back in the second set after denying Trevisan a 3-0 lead with a booming return. Staying with her opponent in a series of tense rallies, Sakkari wrested the momentum and moved up to a 5-3 lead but failed to serve it out.
In the ensuing tie-break she held her nerve to edge the set and level the rubber.
Fortune may well have been with Trevisan in the decider when she broke for a 3-2 lead courtesy of a dead net-cord. However, her first set form was also there as she used her forehand effectively, as she did with drop shots and her net play.
However, Sakkari wasn’t done as she levelled for 4-4 with some great angled shots but she wasn’t able to halt Trevisan’s march towards the finishing line as she broke again at 5-5 and then served out without any problems.
Matteo Berrettini against Stefanos Tsitsipas will be another crucial opening match which will either see the semi-final settled in Italy’s’ favour, or provide Greece with a fighting chance for a recovery.