Vondrousova Tames Sabalenka To Gain Semifinal Berth In Stuttgart

Marketa Vondrousova (photo: Porsche AG)

STUTTGART/WASHINGTON, April 20, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

The Porsche Tennis Grand Prix started with a draw featuring eight of the current WTA Top 10 players and all four reigning Grand Slam champions to begin the spring European clay season.

By Friday’s quarterfinals of the WTA 500 indoor red clay event in Porsche Arena, the Top Four — No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, No. 3 Coco Gauff of the United States and No. 4 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan — remained, plus all four reigning Grand Slam champs. Add to the mix, Emma Raducanu, who has been on an upswing this week in Stuttgart following her twin victories in Billie Jean King Cup competition against France a week ago.

As it happened, Friday was a day to pick favorites except in the second match, which was won by the 2023 Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, and later on, in the last match of the day, in which Gauff was upset in a third-set tie-break after saving seven match points.

Vondrousova, a 24-year-old lefty from Sokolov, seeded sixth, defeated second-seeded and three-time Stuttgart finalist Sabalenka, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, in two hours and one minute.

The win advanced Vondrousova to the semifinals of an event for the first time since winning Wimbledon last summer, and it’s her first Top-5 triumph since defeating Jessica Pegula in the quarterfinals of the grass-court major.

Although Vondrousova had defeated Sabalenka the first two times they met, the Belarusian had won the last four between 2018 and 2023. However, this was their first meeting on clay and after it was over, it represented Sabalenka’s earliest Stuttgart exit after reaching three straight title matches, against Ashleigh Barty in 2021 and Swiatek each of the past two years.

While Sabalenka struck 35 winners to 17 for Vondrousova, she also racked up 48 unforced errors to 19. The Czech converted seven of eight break points and saved nine of 15 break points. Vondrousova outpointed Sabalenka 89-84.

“I’m very happy with my match today,” said Vondrousova in her news conference. “I think it was a great one, a tough one. She’s a fighter, and I think we played a great match.”

And what did Vondrousova learn from her Top-10 triumph?

“Just to know that I can keep up with these players and just play close matches with them and actually, like, win the match,” she said. “So I think, yeah, it’s mostly, like, for me just to know you can do it.”

On Saturday, Vondrousova will play unseeded Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, who anguished through eight match points before finally defeating reigning US Open champion Gauff, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6), in two hours and 48 minutes, which was the longest of the four quarterfinal matches.

The 27th-ranked Kostyuk overcame 10 double faults and 57 unforced errors to hit 35 winners and broke Gauff’s serve eight times in 21 tries. The final break of the American forced a decisive tie-break, which Kostyuk quickly raced to a 6-2 advantage. Then, after letting three match points slip out of her grasp in the 10th game, ahead 5-4 on Gauff’s serve, she squandered four straight match points during the tiebreaker and it was tied 6-all.

However, on her eighth match point opportunity, Kostyuk finally put away the win after Gauff netted a forehand that was struck from deep inside the court. With an 11-shot rally quashed, the 21-year-old from Kyiv who now lives in Monte Carlo, Monaco, had won – in spite of being outpointed 117-116 by Gauff.

“It was very, very close,” a relieved Kostyuk said in her on-court interview. “It was really a matter of a couple of points, if not one. Definitely, it’s an amazing feeling to be in the semifinals here. Yeah, wow!”

Later, in her news conference, Kostyuk added: “Yeah, was very intense match. I honestly, from the beginning of the match, I think I was really off. I couldn’t find a way to, like, put myself together really.

“Yeah, and then slowly [but] slowly, she made some unforced errors in the second set, and I just kind of got it back and I had some chances in the beginning of the third, which I didn’t use. Yeah, I mean, it was a bit of a roller coaster, but a really incredible ending, definitely.”

And what does Kostyuk think of facing Vondrousova?

“She plays great on clay. She uses the whole court. She takes your pace,” Kostyuk explained. “You know, she’s very different from all the players I played this week. And I think this is what makes tennis really beautiful and interesting sport, because everyone is completely different.”

Rybakina, Swiatek set up semifinal showdown

The day began as fourth seed Rybakina led No. 14 Jasmine Paolini of Italy by a set and a break but had to fight from down 0-2 in the final set to reach her fifth semifinal of the season. Rybakina defeated Paolini, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, in two hours and eight minutes.

With her latest three-set victory, Rybakina became the first player to win 10 consecutive completed three-setters played since Naomi Osaka won 12 in a row between Roland Garros 2019 and Brisbane 2020.

“Yeah, really happy to be in semis, playing this tournament third time,” Rybakina told reporters afterward. “For now happy to reach semis and hopefully can go far till the end.”

Rybakina overcame 33 unforced errors by hitting 31 winners compared to 16 winners and 18 unforced errors by Paolini, who was looking for her second straight Top-10 win in Stuttgart after eliminating World No. 9 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia on Thursday.

“I had my chances, didn’t take them, but overall, I’m happy with the game, and hopefully I can just play better and better with time,” said Rybakina, who outpointed Paolini 96-87.

Next, Rybakina will face the top-seeded Swiatek, who is in hot pursuit of winning the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix for a third straight year, after defeating Sabalenka in the 2022 and 2023 finals. In the third quarterfinal, Swiatek handled Porsche Brand Ambassador and British wild card Raducanu, 7-6 (2), 6-3, in two hours and three minutes for her 10th consecutive victory inside Porsche Arena and third career win over the British star. It was Raducanu’s first quarterfinal appearance since 2022.

Swiatek hit 30 winners to 19 unforced errors, while Raducanu countered with 20 winners and made 18 unforced errors. She outpointed her opponent 84-65.

Asked to assess her performance, in which she was pushed to a tie-break for the first time in 21 sets in Stuttgart, Swiatek said in her news conference: “Yeah, for sure it was intense, a lot of tough games, a lot of chances. So, I’m happy that I used to some of them, and I got the lead in both sets. Good finish and strong at the end.”

Swiatek was also asked to assess the resurgence of Raducanu, currently ranked No. 303. The Polish superstar said:  “[Emma] started playing at the beginning pretty loose, like she had nothing to lose, and I totally get that. Sometimes it is like that.

“But I knew I was kind of questioning if she’s going to be able to keep the same intensity throughout the whole match. It wasn’t about service games or return games. I was just the waiting for my chances to break back and I was sure that I’m going to get them.”

Meanwhile, Rybakina looks forward to the challenge of playing the World No. 1 Swiatek on Saturday. “I think it’s nice to play against her. Of course I want to win, but I need to be also realistic,” she admitted. “She’s very good player on clay. She’s maybe a little bit more favorite now, but again, if I play well, I serve well, I move good, I have all the chances. So I’m just happy to play against her.”

Around the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix

• No. 2 seeds Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic and Laura Siegemund of Germany, the only seeded team remaining, withdrew from the doubles competition on Friday. The reason cited was a lower back injury suffered by Siegemund. Thus, unseeded Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway and Ingrid Neel of Estonia have received a walkover into Sunday’s doubles final, which will follow the singles title match. They will play the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Zhang Shuai of China versus Hao-Ching Chan of Taiwan and Veronika Kudermetova of Russia.

• According to Porsche Tennis Grand Prix tournament officials, both Thursday and Friday enjoyed sold-out crowds of 4,200 inside Porsche Arena. Both Saturday (semifinals) and Sunday (finals) are projected to be sell-outs, too. It would put the projected attendance for the tournament (including qualifying weekend) at 30,200 total spectators.

By the numbers

Elena Rybakina was the first Kazakh to appear in the Stuttgart quarterfinals since Yaroslava Shvedova in 2013.

“Quotable …”

“It’s a budding relationship. I feel like it’s one that could become really strong in the future, and I’m just, you know, just entertaining and courting it for the moment.”

Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, from her Thursday post-match news conference, on her current relationship with playing on clay.

“I think, you know, I hope tomorrow will be another great match, another great show. Yeah, let’s play some beautiful tennis.”

Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, on looking forward to playing reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in Saturday’s semifinal round – her third straight semifinal.

Friday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix results

Saturday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix order of play