Paolini Shocks Rybakina At Roland-Garros, Advances to First Major Semifinal

Jasmine Paolini (photo: Jürgen Hasenkopf)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 5, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

At age 28, Italy’s Jasmine Paolini won the biggest tennis match of her life Wednesday afternoon at Roland-Garros. It happened on a beautiful and sunny, late-spring afternoon on Court Philippe-Chatrier – the biggest show court in Paris – a tennis court she had never experienced before.

The adage that good things come to those who are patient was never more true than it was for the diminutive 5-foot-4 Paolini, born in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Lucca, Italy to an Italian father and a Ghanaian/Polish mother. It’s a moment she’ll never forget for the rest of her life.

Paolini, seeded 12th, advanced to her first major semifinal in her sixth Roland-Garros appearance after beating fourth seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, in two hours and three minutes of imperfect tennis by both players. She secured the quarterfinal victory on her first match point after the 24-year-old Russian-born Rybakina sent a forth-shot backhand long.

In Thursday’s semifinals, Paolini will face 17-year-old unseeded Mirra Andreeva of Russia, who pulled off the upset of the Paris fortnight. The No. 38 Andreeva became the youngest woman to reach a major semifinal after knocking off World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4. The other semifinal will pair two-time defending champion and top seed Iga Swiatek of Poland against No. 3 Coco Gauff of the United States.

Entering the final game, Paolini served for match after having won nine straight points. Before that, there had been 12 breaks of serve – seven for Paolini and five for Rybakina – and 70 unforced errors between the two competitors (48 for Rybakina and 22 for Paolini).

After winning the opening set, Paolini twice led by a break in the second set, and two more times early on in the third set. However, each time Rybakina fought back despite showing a lack of energy earlier. Finally, Paolini held steady in the end. She finished with 22 winners to 35 for Rybakina but outpointed her opponent 97-83.

“It was a tough match,” Paolini said afterward. “I was too emotional in the second set. I said to myself it’s okay, she’s a great champion. It can happen. Just fight and try to hit every ball. It worked. I’m here.”

Rybakina, who has won a trio of WTA Tour titles this year so far, fell to 0-2 in Roland Garros quarterfinals. In 2021, she lost to Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her major quarterfinal debut.

“I think in the end my legs were not there,” Rybakina admitted in her post-match news conference. “No matter which conditions, if it’s slow or fast, I should have been moving better … a lot of unforced errors.

“So, I’m not, of course, really happy with the performance, but it is what it is. It’s tennis. Not every day you can play good.”

Meanwhile, the 15th-ranked Paolini became the fourth Italian to reach the Roland-Garros semifinals in the Open Era following in the footsteps of Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Martina Trevisan.

In beating the World No. 4 Rybakina, it was Paolini’s first Top 5 win in a major and her third overall. After securing match point, Paolini beamed a big smile and called her triumph an “unbelievable feeling,” in her on-court interview with Marion Bartoli.

After breaking into the Top 30 last year, Paolini won her first WTA 1000 title in Dubai in February. Her win-loss record this season after defeating Rybakina is a respectable 21-10. She has now assured herself of rising to the WTA Top 10 next week.

Paolini will become the first Italian to be ranked in the Top 10 since Roberta Vinci nearly eight years ago in September 2016, and will become the fifth Italian woman to achieve the Top 10, following Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Errani and Vinci.

Bartoli gave props to Paolini, saying: “I think everyone here fell in love with you for your game, your smile, your attitude.” It brought a big smile from Paolini.

“Merci beaucoup!” responded a smiling Paolini. “It’s my first time playing on this beautiful court. It’s a pleasure. It’s a privilege. I’m happy I got my first win in my first match here because this is one of the best courts in tennis.”

Opportunity knocks for Andreeva, teenager upsets Sabalenka

Seventeen-year-old Mirra Andreeva battled her way past an ailing second seed Aryna Sabalenka and beat the World No. 2 for the first time in her third try. The No. 38 Andreeva from Russia recovered from losing a first-set tie-break to pull out a remarkable and dramatic 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4 victory against the Belarusian in two hours and 29 minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier, which advanced to her first Grand Slam semifinal.

Andreeva won on her second match-point opportunity after hitting a perfect backhand lob over a drawn-in Sabalenka that landed just inside the baseline.

It was Sabalenka’s first loss in a major this season after going 11-0 and 22-0 in sets.

Andreeva became the youngest woman win to reach a major semifinal since Martina Hingis in 1997 and she’s the youngest to beat a Top-2 opponent in a major since a then-16-year-old Jelena Dokic defeated Hingis at Wimbledon in 1999. She’s also the youngest to beat at Top-2 foe at Roland-Garros since Monica Seles, also 16, defeated Stefanie Graf in the 1990 final.

During her in-court interview with Mats Wilander, Andreeva was asked about facing Paolini in Thursday’s semifinals. She said: “I played her in Madrid. It was really tough mentally and game-wise. She plays really fast and moves really fast. She goes for it. Doesn’t matter what the situation or score is. It will be a bit like today. I’ll try to play the same level and with the same cool head. We’ll see what happens.

Moving on: Zverev reaches fourth straight Roland-Garros semifinal

Fourth seed Alexander Zverev advanced to his fourth straight Roland-Garros semifinal with his 6-4 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over 11th seed Alex de Minaur of Australia in Wednesday’s featured night session match on Court Philippe-Chatrier. It was the German’s eighth career triumph over de Minaur in 10 meetings and 11th straight victory this season.

De Minaur gave Zverev all he could handle, hitting 28 winners and converting three of eight break points. In the end, though, Zverev recovered after failing to serve out the match at 5-3 and broke the Australian in the next game – finishing match-point with a 21-shot rally – to put a wrap on the two-hour and 59-minute quarterfinal.

Zverev hit 20 winners, made 48 unforced errors and outpointed de Minaur 104-96. De Minaur received tremendous applause as he walked off Court Philippe-Chatrier for the last time and into the Parisian night.

“I have a mindset that you have to work harder than everyone else to be the best player and I think the best players are all doing that,” Zverev said in his on-court interview with Alex Corretja, explaining his successful work ethic. “For me, I like to work to my limit and, if I do that, playing five sets is not that difficult. I have been doing that over many years now and I am happy it is paying off. I am happy to be in another semifinal, hopefully I can win one.”

On Friday, Zverev will face No. 7 seed Casper Ruud of Norway, who advanced by walkover after defending champion and top seed Novak Djokovic withdrew from the tournament with a torn medial meniscus on Tuesday. Their career series is tied 2-2. Ruud defeated Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, in last year’s Roland-Garros semifinals.

Around Roland-Garros

• In the men’s doubles draw, 11th seeds Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori upset third seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, in quarterfinal-round action. Next for the all-Italian duo is a semifinal showdown against second seeds Rohan Bopanna of India and Matthew Ebden of Australia, who defeated 10th seeds Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen of Belgium, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1, in two hours and four minutes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. Bopanna and Ebden outpointed their opponents 97-87.

Meanwhile, top seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina took out Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic and Zhang Zhizhen of China, 6-4, 6-1 in just 65 minutes to advance to the semifinals spot at the clay-court major in Paris. Granollers and Zeballos converted five of six break points and won 11 of the final 13 games of the quarterfinal match on Court-Philippe Chatrier.

• No. 5 seeds Coco Gauff of the United States and Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, the highest remaining seeds in the women’s doubles draw, put on a masterclass on Court Simonne-Mathieu in their 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over No, 16 seeds Miyu Kato of Japan and Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine. They needed just 48 minutes to advance to the semifinal round against No. 8 seeds Caroline Dolehide and Desirae Krawczyk of the United States. Against Kato and Kichenok, Gauff and Siniakova converted all five of their break-point opportunities and outpointed their opponents 53-25.

In the other half of the draw, both Jasmine Paolini of Italy and Mirra Andreeva of Russia were in for a busy day as each were slated to play singles and doubles on Wednesday. No doubt, both Paolini and Andreeva would benefit from the doubles experience of their respective partners. Paolini is paired with five-time major champion Sara Errani, who won Roland-Garros in 2012 with Roberta Vinci, while Andreeva has teamed with three-time doubles Grand Slam winner Vera Zvonareva. Both Errani and Zvonareva were in the stands to watch their partner’s singles matches.

As it happened, Paolini and Errani advanced to the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Emma Navarro of the United States and Diana Shnaider of Russia. However, Andreeva withdrew from the doubles competition after her singles win — understandably — and it gave Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine and Elena-Gabriela Ruse of Romania a walkover into the semifinals.

• Semifinal-round play began in the mixed doubles draw as No. 4 seeds Desirae Krawczyk of the United States and Neal Skupski of Great Britain defeated No. 7 seeds Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Jan Zielinski of Poland, 6-1, 6-7 (2), 10-4, in an hour and 36 minutes. Earlier, No. 2 seeds Laura Siegemund of Germany and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France advanced to the semifinals after defeating the all-New Zealand team of Erin Routliffe and Michael Venus, 4-6, 6-4, 10-7, in a quarterfinal-round match decided by a match tie-break. Later, Siegemund and Roger-Vasselin beat Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway and Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina, 6-7 (2), 6-2, 10-7, to advance to Thursday’s title match.

Wednesday’s Roland-Garros results

Thursday’s Roland-Garros order of play

By the numbers

Alexander Zverev enters his quarterfinal match against Alex de Minaur on a 10-match winning streak after capturing his sixth ATP Masters 1000 Rome title last month. He is looking to reach his fourth straight semifinal at Roland-Garros, becoming just the 11th man in Open Era to achieve that feat.

“Quotable …”

“I think to stay in every point, to forget what happened in the second set. I mean, it can happen – it’s tennis – so, it’s normal! I managed to come back, to stay there, be confident and to fight again.”

Jasmine Paolini during her on-court interview flowing herquarterfinal upset victory over Elena Rybakina.