Japan’s Hibino Continues To Be The Surprise In Strasbourg

Nao Hibino (photo: Internationaux-strasbourg.fr)

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

As the WTA Tour’s Internationaux de Strasbourg reached the quarterfinal round, just three of the original eight seeds remained: No. 2 Elina Svitolina, No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 5 Elena Rybakina. All were in action Thursday afternoon on the red clay of Patrice Dominguez Court at the Strasbourg Tennis Center. Both Svitolina and Rybakina won in straight sets and are safely through to Friday’s semifinals. However, Sabalenka’s status is upon the air after her match against Katerina Siniakova was suspended by rain with the Belarusian trailing by a set. She will have to do double duty if she’s to reach Saturday’s championship match.

Here’s how quarterfinal Thursday took shape in the Alsace region of northeastern France:

Forty-third-ranked Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia took a 2-0 head-to-head advantage into her quarterfinal match with No. 84 Nao Hibino of Japan, who has been the surprise of the tournament, in a battle of unseeded players. Their most recent encounter was three years ago in Seoul, South Korea, where Ostapenko beat Hibino en route to winning the second of her three career WTA singles titles. In her Strasbourg debut this week, Ostapenko won twice, against Lauren Davis and by retirement over No. 3 seed Kiki Bertens, to reach the quarterfinal round. Ostapenko’s win against Bertens was her 12th Top 10 win of her career.

However, it was Hibino who prevailed 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) in one hour and 41 minutes. Her backhand winner that capped a 10-shot rally left Ostapenko stunned and disappointed. The Latvian pounded her racquet into the ground in frustration while Hibino beamed a smile as she received polite applause. She turned to the crowd and bowed in appreciation of what she had accomplished – her second semifinal of the year following Hua Hin, Thailand, in February – and first on clay.

The 25-year-old native of Aichi, Japan, took advantage of the unpredictability of her opponent: There were six breaks of Ostapenko’s serve coupled with seven double faults and 38 unforced errors committed by the 2017 French Open champion. Hibino overcame a shaky start at the beginning of the match, in which she fell behind 2-0 early after losing the first eight points of the match. Then, down a double break at 2-5 in the second, Hibino started to focus on just keeping the ball in play as much as she could. She got both breaks back, winning four straight games. In the tiebreak, Hibino jumped ahead 4-2 and won the final two points of the match. She outpointed Ostapenko 86-76.

Hibino broke a six-match losing streak going back to that semifinal in Thailand when she arrived in Strasbourg this week. Since then, she’s strung together wins over Sloane Stephens, Zarina Diyas and Ostapenko, all ranked higher than Hibino and each one a little more impressive than the previous one.

During her on-court interview, Hibino admitted that playing on clay was “not my favorite thing. It’s surprising for me that I’m doing well this week.

“Jelena hits hard and has good forehand and backhand. So, I just kept telling myself to put the ball back as much as possible.”

Later, during her virtual press conference, Hibino was asked by TennisTourTalk what the key to her victory was and how she remained calm and focused. She thought about the question for a moment and smiled. Then, carefully measuring her words, Hibino answered in a soft-spoken voice: “I tried to not focus what [Jelena] did during the match. I just focused on my tactics as much as I could.” 

Hibino reemphasized that playing on clay was not something she usually enjoys; she’s just making the most of her opportunity. “I just tried to run and keep the ball in play. I think it helped not to think about other things,” she said.

Rybakina dominant against Zhang

No. 18 Rybakina of Kazakhstan came into her quarterfinal match against 40th-ranked Zhang Shuai from China with a little history between them – one match – and it was won by Rybakina in straight sets during the Hobart final earlier this season. The Kazakh’s two wins earlier this week leveled her with Elise Mertens of Belgium for most match wins on the WTA Tour this year with 26. Rybakina has reached three other finals this season.

In their second encounter, Rybakina had little difficulty with Zhang, winning 6-3, 6-2, in 59 minutes for her tour-leading 27th tour victory to set up a semifinal meeting with Hibino.

Rybakina was solid on her serve, hitting six aces and winning 81 percent of her first-serve points. She was broken just once while converting four of her six break-point opportunities against Zhang. Rybakina outpointed Zhang 59-36.

“My serve was much better today; it was easier today on service games,” said Rybakina, who is the WTA leader in service aces with 182. “I’m used to the conditions and the different balls we use on clay. This is my second tournament on clay. With every match I am playing better and better. I hope I can continue [my momentum] in the French Open.

“I’m getting closer and closer to the form I had before the lockdown. … Hopefully, it can be like this for the rest of the tournament.”

Not an easy win for Svitolina

World No. 5 Svitolina of Ukraine faced No. 54 Jil Teichmann from Switzerland, whose first two career titles both came on clay last year at Prague and Palermo. The Swiss No. 2 reached a career-high ranking of No. 52 following her runner-up finish on a hard court at Lexington, Ky., last month, while Svitolina, in her first action on clay this year, reached the quarterfinals last week at Rome.

Svitolina has matched up well against lefties like Teichmann – winning seven of her last 10 – and although she trailed early in the opening set, handled the pressure of the moment well and rallied for a hard-fought 6-4, 6-3 win in one hour and 23 minutes to advance to Friday’s semifinal round. She hit five service aces, won 64 percent of her first serves and was effective in breaking Teichmann’s serve five times in 11 tries. Svitolina outpointed Teichmann 69-56.

Although Teichmann dropped only three points in her first two service games, she was unable to covert some crucial game points that would have given her a 4-2 lead. Instead, Svitolina rebounded to win the next four games and pulled out the first set. She continued by opening up a 2-0 lead in the second set after winning eight of the first 10 points. At 3-all, Teichmann failed to convert a break-point opportunity and it cleared a path for Svitolina to pull away.

“It definitely wasn’t an easy match,” said Svitolina, who finished with 18 winners against 14 unforced errors. “I was down in the first set and was not ‘on’ straight away, which really, I think, pushed me to raise my level and to try to find a way – I think this was one of the lessons [I learned]. Every single match you have to raise your level to beat your opponent. 

“These days, everyone is coming up very strong and very ready to take you. When you are like a top player, everyone wants to beat you badly. I think the positive was I raised my level and I tried to really fight for every single point and go for my opportunities.”

Svitolina praised Teichmann’s play, which produced 18 winners. “I think she really was playing really good and striking the ball really well,” she said. “I was fighting to stay in and to get the win, and I think I got rewarded. That was really good today, because I didn’t let the bad games change my mindset.”

Sabalenka/Siniakova suspended by rain

World No. 12 Sabalenka of Belarus met Siniakova from the Czech Republic for the first time with the Belarusian looking to reach her second straight Strasbourg semifinal in her two career appearances. Meanwhile, Siniakova reached her first WTA singles quarterfinal of the season with her upset of seventh seed Ekaterina Alexandrova on Wednesday. She’s a former WTA doubles World No. 1 and more known for her doubles prowess. A win over Sabalenka would be her first Top 20 win of the season.

Unfortunately, Sabalenka and Siniakova will have to wait until Friday to complete their quarterfinal match. With Siniakova ahead 6-2, 1-2, a steady rain fell began to fall and the players were pulled off of the court at 5:47 p.m. after one hour and 10 minutes of play. The match was suspended shortly after as rain was forecast for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.

The completion of the Sabalenka-Siniakova quarterfinal will follow a doubles semifinal match that is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning. The winner will return not before 3:30 p.m. to play in the second singles semifinal against Svitolina. The first singles semifinal, between Hibino and Rybakina is scheduled not before 1:30 p.m.

Carter/Stefani reach doubles final

Fourth seeds Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani from Brazil upset the second seeds Gaby Dabrowski of Canada and Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia, 6-3, 6-4, in one hour and eight minutes to advance to Saturday’s doubles final. They will await the winners of Friday’s other semifinal between No. 1 seeds Nicole Melichar from the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands against No. 3 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both from Japan.

What they’re saying in Strasbourg

• Elena Rybakina was asked how important it is to go into Roland Garros in back of a strong performance in Strasbourg this week: “I think it’s very important. It’s also very good I’m playing here with the same balls, the same court [conditions]. I think it’s a good preparation for the French Open and I can’t wait to start [in Paris].”

• Elina Svitolina was asked about playing a tournament the week before a major when many of the Top 10 players are already in Paris preparing for Roland Garros. “We made the decision to come here [to Strasbourg], I committed to the decision … and I’m very happy that I already got a few good matches here.

“The courts are very good here; they are very similar to Roland Garros. The balls are the same, the field of players are very strong. In the end, I’m very happy to be playing here.”

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