With Victory Comes Opportunity For Krejcikova

Barbora Krejcikova (photo: DDF Tennis)

DUBAI/WASHINGTON, March 11, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Widely regarded as one of the best doubles players in the world, Barbora Krejcikova is starting to gain recognition as a solo artist. That’s because the 63rd-ranked, soft-spoken Czech with steady and measured concentration has the desire to not be labeled as just a doubles specialist.

After reaching the biggest WTA semifinal of her career, at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the 25-year-old from Brno is seeing her stock in the rankings rise, too.

What began with a first-round upset of No. 16 seed Maria Sakkari, followed with a win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and, then, a defeat of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, continued Thursday with a 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over young (19-year-old) and fearless Anastasia Potapova of Russia It advanced to Krejcikova into the semifinal round at the first WTA 1000-series event of the year. All of her wins this week have come in straight sets and are contributing toward her breaking into the Top 50  in singles. She’s already World No. 7 in doubles.

“I really love to play in Dubai,” Krejcikova said during a one-on-one interview with Tennis TourTalk on Wednesday after her victory over Kuznetsova. “This week is already an amazing week. I’ve been having fun. Let’s see what happens.”

Krejcikova, who has played just 51 main-draw singles matches, was recently asked how much her Grand Slam doubles experience has helped her on the singles court. She explained, “I think it is really helping. I’m doing a lot of serving, a lot of returning. It’s still a match. I’m playing doubles and also playing mixed against guys, so they’re serving way faster. It’s a great preparation.”

At last month’s Australian Open, Krejcikova and Siniakova advanced to the doubles final before losing to Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Then, Krejcikova redeemed herself by winning the mixed doubles title with Rajeev Ram of the United States for the second time in three years and her third time overall.

Playing both calm and collected this week – and with a purpose – in her quarterfinal, Krejcikova served up a bagel opening set in 25 minutes as she broke the 88th-ranked Potapova three straight times from five looks and played from an advantage of being ahead from the beginning. The Czech didn’t face any break points while outpointing her opponent 29-16.

Krejcikova kept the pressure on Potapova early in the second set by breaking her to go ahead 2-1. Although she was broken back to level the set at 2-all, Krejcikova didn’t drop another game in the match. She controlled what took place on her side of the net very well.

Finally, after breaking Potapova for the sixth time in 10 opportunities, thanks to Potapova’s seventh double fault, Krejcikova served out the 59-minute triumph with authority. She sealed it with her only ace of the match, then raised her fist in celebration. Krejcikova dropped just three points on her first serve, was broken just once, won 71 percent of her second-serve return points and outpointed Potapova 60-34 to advance on.

“I’m just so relieved and happy I was able to play my best tennis,” Krejcikova said of her first meeting against Potapova, during her on-court interview that followed her win. “It felt really good.”

Now, a week after not making it out of qualifying in Doha, with Krejcikova’s solid ninth victory of the season comes opportunity. That’s because on Friday she will face an unseeded player, No 54 Jil Teichmann of Switzerland, in her first WTA 1000 semifinal match. A berth in just her second WTA title match to go along with her first one, 2017 in Nurnberg, is at stake.

“Right now, I’m just going to enjoy this victory,” said Krejcikova. “At the end of the day, I’ll look at the match I’m going to play and get set for tomorrow.”

Incredible turnaround lands Mertens in semifinals

World No. 18 Elise Mertens looked to level her record in WTA quarterfinal-round matches at 15-15 with a win against in-form Jessica Pegula, who was attempting to reach back-to-back semifinals in the Doha-Dubai double. For one set, it looked like the No. 36 American from Buffalo, N.Y., would beat her fifth Top 20 opponent of the season and eighth of her career.

However, the No. 10 seed Mertens from Leuven, Belgium, found a way to win and what a performance she gave during her 5-7, 7-5, 6-0 victory over Pegula. The Belgian saved three match points that highlighted a 10-point 10th game in the second set. Then, she won the final 11 games of the two hour and 48-minute Centre Court match.

“In the second set, I didn’t feel like I was playing that badly,” Mertens told her virtual press conference audience. “There were some close games. I just tried to stay in the game; you never know what might happen. I was mentally prepared for a battle; she was too.”

Mertens, who lost the first set on a double fault, rallied from 1-4 down in the second. She broke Pegula – one of her seven on the match – for 4-5, then held when she saved three match points on her service and broke, again, to go ahead for good at 6-5. From there, Mertens served out the second set.

“I didn’t win the first few games, but at the end, I got the reward,” she said.

As the third set began to develop, Mertens’ acceleration, hand speed and – most importantly – her mental game was in good shape. Not so much for Pegula, who was broken in each of her three service games as the unforced errors (54 in total for the match) continued to plague her. Things were going so well at the for Mertens that, in serving it out, she hit a dead net-cord winner – the final of her 27 winners – to set up match point. On the 230th point of the match, an hour after her prospects of reaching her second semifinal of the season didn’t look so good, it was Mertens who found a way to win.

During her on-court interview, Mertens said, “I just didn’t want to let go. I kept on fighting and that was the spirit today.” Later, during her virtual press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked the Belgian No. 1 how she processed the 10th game during the second set, in which she faced and saved three match points, which turned the tenor of the match around in her favor. She said:

“Like I don’t even know the other two match points, I just remember one,” quipped Mertens, which brought smiles to everyone during her interview. “I just tried to stay in the game.

“[Jessica] was playing well, but I felt like I was coming back. After 5-2, 5-3, she had to make one more game, but I was feeling like I didn’t want it to end. I was coming back a little bit more in the match and it was just one break. That kind of helped me. At 5-all in the second set, I really wanted to push through because never know what’s going to happen in a third set. I think, mentally, point by point, you don’t look too much at the score, you just try to figure out your game and see what you can improve upon during the set.”

Muguruza-Sabalenka redux goes to Spaniard

Before No. 9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka clashed for the second time in two weeks, following their second-round tussle in Doha won by the two-time Grand Slam champion, the Spaniard said she welcomed the challenge.

During her virtual press conference that followed her round of 16 win over Polish teenager Iga Swiatek Wednesday evening, the World No. 16 Muguruza shared this thought: “Back-to-back matches is good; that means I’m playing the top players. That means I’m getting into the deep rounds. I’m looking forward to another battle.”

Indeed, the two Top 20 warriors put forth quite a battle, one that easily could have been a title match. Like last week in Doha, it was Muguruza who prevailed over World No. 8 Sabalenka of Belarus, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, in one hour and 51 minutes. Muguruza won the final five games of the match, which advanced her to a third Dubai semifinal to with 2015 and 2018. On Friday, she will face Elise Mertens, whom she has opposed only once, at the 2016 US Open won by Muguruza 2-6, 6-0, 6-3.

Muguruza put forth another solid effort that has lifted her to consecutive semifinals in the Doha-Dubai double. She hit seven aces and 26 winners to 23 unforced errors, won 79 percent of her first serves and more than half (56 percent) of her second serves. Although broken three times, Muguruza broke Sabalenka five times in 11 tries and outpointed her opponent 89-73 in picking up her WTA-leading 16th victory of the year.

“I felt like she came out today more aggressive than our last match in Doha,” Muguruza told Tennis TourTalk. “I felt like she wanted to play more aggressive, faster, serving big, and I struggled to find my shots, my game and she quickly broke me with the serve.

“Then, I tried to be more aggressive as well. When you have somebody in front of you who is trying to win the point in a couple of shots, you have to be faster and stronger. So, I tried to be dominant after. Then, everything was more equal. I felt like, you know, I was more in the points. The first time I was rushing too much.”

During her virtual chat with reporters, Sabalenka praised Muguruza as a fierce competitor, saying “she fights for every point, she won’t give you any easy points. You always have to be focused [against her] because she can come back at any time and that’s what she did perfectly [to me] in the second set. She put the pressure on me and I didn’t cope with the pressure.”

When Tennis TourTalk asked Muguruza if she felt more pressure to win after being successful against Sabalenka in Doha, she said: “Everyone can win at the end of the day. Nobody cares who won the last week, or whatever. This is a new tournament. I’m excited to play against the top players. I was excited to play for a semifinal [berth].”

Third time’s a charm for Teichmann

Jil Teichmann doesn’t get the same kind of headline attention in Switzerland, coming from the same European country that’s produced tennis stars Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Belinda Bencic. However, the 54th-ranked Barcelona-born Swiss has enjoyed a solid week in the Emirates, where she’s reached her second consecutive hard-court semifinal following a 6-3, 6-3 victory over No. 38 Coco Gauff of the United States.

“I’m very, very happy about the way I knew I should play and the way it worked out,” Teichmann told Tennis TourTalk, during a virtual conversation shortly after she left the court.

During their one hour and 22-minute quarterfinal match, Teichmann won 70 percent of her service points and saved all three break-points she faced from Gauff, who turns 17 on Saturday. Teichmann broke Gauff three times, first to go ahead 5-3 in the opening set, which she consolidated to win it. Then, she bookended service breaks in the first and ninth games of the second set that helped wrap up the quarterfinal win. Throughout, Teichmann played from the advantage of being ahead against Gauff.

The victory was Teichmann’s 10th in her last 12 matches – she’s yet to drop a set in Dubai – and it advanced her to face unseeded Barbora Krejcikova. When Tennis TourTalk asked Teichmann, who also reached the semifinals of last month’s Adelaide International, why she’s play so well lately, she said:

“I’ve been playing well for over a year, just before the pandemic. I guess many small things together, but obviously I’m playing good on the big moments, being consistent and believing in myself.”

Thursday’s Dubai DFTC results

Friday’s Dubai DFTC order of play

News & noteworthy

Following the upset of doubles No. 1 seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the third round on Wednesday, Krejcikova and her longtime doubles partner, Katerina Siniakova, with whom she’s won a pair of Grand Slams titles side by side, became the highest seeds remaining. However, like Mertens and Sabalenka, they became upset victims, too. In Thursday evening’s quarterfinal, Krejcikova and Siniakova fell to No. 5 seed Timea Babos of Hungary and Veronika Kudermetova from Russia, 6-3, 7-5.

On Friday, the doubles semifinals will match Babos and Kudermetova against Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan, both of China, and No. 8 seed Alexa Guarachi of Chile and Darija Jurak from Croatia versus Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jessica Pegula, both from the United States.

What they’re saying

• Barbora Krejcikova: “I think it’s always good to have dreams that you feel you can actually achieve them. I feel like after winning my first [doubles] Grand Slam at the French Open in 2018, it was always my dream to win a Grand Slam. At that moment, it happened. Since then, I’m just really enjoying [the moment] and trying to improve every single day, to enjoy life.

“Every week, I learn something new and different. I try to remind myself, ‘I’ve learned this and I’ve learned that.’ Playing singles last year gave me a lot of experience, feeling really well on court. After last season, I asked myself ‘Am I able to keep going with the same things I was doing last season [playing singles and doubles]? Or, was this maybe a one-time thing?

“I’m very surprised [how it turned out] and very happy and grateful and fortunately because I can play really good in singles and still play doubles. It’s exciting to be playing tennis, to be on court.

“I enjoy being on court playing. It’s what I love.”

• After Elise Mertens took two weeks off to rest an ailing shoulder, in which she pulled out of the Adelaide International following the Australian Open and went home to Belgium, she arrived in Dubai rested and enthusiastic to play. “I love being at home, I love animals. I have some animals at home that gives me a mental rest [from tennis] to positively [be able to] go travel again.

“I didn’t do anything until last Friday because of the injury I have. It was kind of a rush, rush to play on Monday. As you can see, sometimes, you don’t need the best preparations to do well. Also, you need the mental strength and positive thoughts to go through.”