Fighting Pain, Azarenka Wills Way To Doha Win

Victoria Azarenka (photo: @samer_alrejjal/Qatar Total Open)

DOHA/WASHINGTON, March 4, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Victoria Azarenka remained undefeated (4-0) against World No. 5 and top seed Elina Svitolina, but this time it wasn’t easy. The two-time Doha champion fought through physical pain in her back the entire match and, somehow, pulled out a 6-2, 6-4 victory over her doubles partner to reach the semifinals of the WTA 500 Qatar Total Open Thursday evening.

Now, the World No. 13 Azarenka (4-2 this season, with a three-match winning streak) will have less than 24 hours to recover before she faces unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza in Friday evening’s second semifinal match. It will be Azarenka’s 60th WTA semifinal.

On a warm, 25-degree Celsius evening in Doha, the No. 8 seed Azarenka required a medical time out after the first game against Svitolina to deal with a lower back issue, evidenced by her 81 miles-per-hour first serve. She winced in pain with nearly every ball she hit. Eventually, she began to stand instead of sit during changeovers.

However, give credit to the spirited Belarusian. Azarenka endured and the longer the one hour and 27-minute match went on, the more inspired she became despite being physically compromised. Somehow, Azarenka found the reserve she needed and finished with 25 winners, more than double the total of Svitolina in her first match against a Top 20 opponent this year. Svitolina dropped to 0-2 against Top 20 competition this year.

Tennis TourTalk asked the two-time Doha champion Azarenka how she fought through the pain. She answered: “Well, the pain didn’t really get any better. I’m pretty proud of the way I handled it mentally. I tried to approach it and focus on the things that I could do rather than the things that I couldn’t do, and I think that really helped me to go through and find ways to, first, stay in the match and then also to create opportunities and take them.”

Kvitova happy to reach another match in Doha

Petra Kvitova has been nothing if not consistent this week and the 2018 champion survived a hard-hitting clash with Anett Kontaveit to advance to her third straight Doha semifinal, winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Combined, there were 16 breaks of serve during the one hour and 46-minute match that began the day on Centre Court. Kvitova jumped ahead 5-1 to start the match before Kontaveit rallied. In the end, the Czech lefty hit 31 winners to 24 unforced errors in a battle of survival and moved into the semifinal round.

“For sure, it was a kind of roller coaster, I would say,” Kvitova told Tennis TourTalk, when asked what she learned about herself and what positive takeaways were hers to take into the next round. “Well, it’s tough to play Anett at any time. Doesn’t really matter how it looks like, but I know we had [a] couple of games [that] were really very tight.

“I’m really glad that after losing the second set, which I didn’t play the best probably, I started very well in the third and, you know, was important – the first break in the first game of the third set.

“I learned probably that the return was pretty good from my side. … I was going for it, first point, first shot, and that I think made a little bit the big difference because it was the key of it.

“In the rally, it was 50-50 and anybody could do it, but when I put the pressure from the return, it was really very nice. It was tough to hold the serve, for sure. The conditions were different and tough. I’m glad that I won my last service game, for sure.

“I’m really happy from my side that I’m going to be in the semifinal.”

When Kontaveit was asked by Tennis TourTalk what makes Kvitova such a great competitor and opponent, the 24th-ranked Estonian replied: “She played extremely aggressive on these, like, big moments. She was very successful. She always fights.

“There were so many times when I was up 40-15 on my serve and she’d come back. Because she’s got such big weapons, the game is never over until it’s over.”

Pegula achieves milestone with another Top 10 win

The rise of 44th-ranked American Jessica Pegula this year has not gone unnoticed by those who follow the WTA. Thursday afternoon, Pegula notched her second Top 10 victory of the year with her 6-3, 6-1 victory over 2017 Doha champion and this year’s No 2 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in an hour. She’s 8-2 in her last 10 hard-court matches and her success in Qatar – reaching her first WTA 500 semifinal – could lift her into the Top 40 next week.

This week, though, Pegula has come through three rounds of qualifying to earn a berth in the 28-player main draw – including her only three-setter, a 6-2 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6) win over Anastasia Potapova – and her win over the World No. 6 Pliskova was her sixth consecutive triumph. Each of her three wins to reach the semifinals have come in straight sets.

Against Pliskova, Pegula won 85 percent of her first-serve points and 76 percent of her second serves, both well above her season averages of 72 percent and 62 percent, respectively. She faced just two break points in the match while breaking Pliskova’s serve five times.

“Definitely a confidence builder,” Pegula told Tennis TourTalk. “I had a really tough match my second-round quallies against Potapova and, honestly, I probably should have lost.

“I think after that match, I decided to just use that confidence of scraping out that match to, you know, play really aggressive and step in and just go for my shots.

“So, I actually think that match … really helped me to this point and why I’m playing pretty well right now. Today, it kind of felt like everything was kind of going my way.”

Peak Muguruza is lights out in win over Sakkari

Garbiñe Muguruza dropped just nine points on her serve against unseeded Maria Sakkari and averaged her loss to the 25th-ranked Greek rising start that came at the start of the season in Abu Dhabi, during her 6-3, 6-1 victory that lasted just 66 minutes. The victory advanced the Spaniard to her second Doha semifinal in six Qatar appearances.

Muguruza hit 14 winners to just seven unforced errors and converted five of 12 break points against Sakkari, who was looking to book her third semifinal appearance of the young season.

After being pushed to three sets in her 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, win against defending champion Aryna Sabalenka on Wednesday evening, Tennis TourTalk asked Muguruza how difficult it was to prepare herself to come back the next evening after a mentally and physically challenging match. She said: “I have to say that we work for these moments. We train hard to be able to train hard the next day. … I had less than 24 hours to recover, but you know, this is also what we try to work on.

“Now, there is never really an easy match. So, you have to be prepared to have a tough match and then the next day be able to play another tough match.

“[I’m] happy today that I was a little bit more efficient in the important moments, that I could close the match in two sets.”

Top-seeded team upset in double semifinal

Unseeded Monica Niculescu of Romania and Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia rallied to beat top-seeded Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic, 2-6, 6-3, 10-8, to reach Friday’s doubles final.

Niculescu and Ostapenko will face No. 2-seeded team of Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands, who advanced over Andreja Klepac of Slovenia and Sania Mirza of India, 7-5, 2-6, 10-5.

Friday’s title match will be on Center Court beginning at 4 p.m., ahead of the two singles semifinal matches.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Nicole Melichar (@nmelicha)

Thursday’s Qatar Total Open results

Friday’s Qatar Total Open order of play

What they’re saying

Tennis TourTalk asked Jessica Pegula what positive takeaways she took from her last loss – in the Australian Open quarterfinals to finalist Jennifer Brady, one of her best friends on the WTA tour. She said: “I took a lot from that match. I definitely was a little, not nervous, but I guess anxious coming here because you come off such a big quarterfinal, a lot of big wins, and them I’m in qualifying here and I have to win three matches.

“So, it definitely was different, but that’s what I love about it. It’s so week to week and there is a different challenge every week. I definitely took a lot from losing to Jen but at the same time tried to not like look too much into it. It was a good match. She played really well. It was her day, not mine I just tried to take away the positives and move forward.”