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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, March 29, 2023


Sorana Cirstea scored her biggest career win, by ranking, stunning No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 6-4 to streak into the Miami Open semifinals.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

MIAMI—The service box seemed to shrink to the size of a mail box.

Aryna Sabalenka couldn't make the delivery fit.

More: Miami Tournament Director James Blake Q&A

Australian Open champion Sabalenka surrendered three service breaks on double faults and Sorana Cirstea countered with timely strikes stunning the second seed 6-4, 6-4 to streak into the Miami Open semifinals.

When Sabalenka's final shot sailed long, Cirstea stood frozen for a second, soaking in the moment of her biggest career win, by ranking, over the world No. 2 before breaking into a satisfied smile toward coach Thomas Johansson.

"I think I am speechless," Cirstea told Andrew Krasny afterward. "I came out knowing that it's gonna be a really tough match. Aryna hits  so hard so I knew I had to hold my ground.

"I'm very, very happy with my performance today and a bit surprised to be honest."

World No. 74 Cirstea improved to 11-6 on the season reaching her second career WTA 1000 semifinal nearly a decade after she was runner-up to Serena Williams at the 2013 Toronto.

Indian Wells' finalist Sabalenka dropped to 20-3 in 2023 with Elena Rybakina, Barbora Krejcikova and Cirstea the only three players to beat the Belarusian.

Afterward, Sabalenka conceded the heat drained her. In contrast, Cirstea, who said she does not ever recall cramping in a match, looked unfazed by conditions.

"It definitely wasn't my best match. I was struggling a lot with the conditions, like heat," Sabalenka said. "I felt like balls were flying too much and I couldn't find control, controlling the ball.

"Yeah, was just trying to do my best till the last point. I just couldn't adjust to these conditions unfortunately. Next time I'll try better."

The winner of nine of her last 10 matches, Cirstea credits the offseason work she did with coach and former Australian Open champion Johansson with her recent run of success.

"So far, I think it's going great," Cirstea said of her partnership with Johansson, a man who served bigger than his size suggests. "I guess people like to keep out count of the age, the years [on Tour], the results.

"But I don't do that. I just mind my own business, do my work and believe in my game. I'm not defined by numbers." 

Contesting her 13th Miami Open, Cirstea has played like a Top 25 player she once was in South Florida. Cirstea will face the winner of tonight's quarterfinal, either two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova or No. 18 Ekaterina Alexandrova, for a place in the final.

Moving fluidly and applying sharp angles wisely, Cirstea has not dropped a set knocking off a series of accomplished players, including fifth-seeded Caroline Garcia, former Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova, former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova and the red-hot Sabalenka, who was coming off a run to the Indian Wells final.

Cirstea, who celebrates her 33rd birthday on April 7th, never panicked in the face of Sabalenka's sheer power and her willingness to stand in and face the fire frustrated the big-hitting Belarusian into some wild errors. Cirstea hit 16 winners against only 9 errors in 20 games, while Sabalenka smacked 21 winners and scattered 21 unforced errors.

Though she fought hard and fans tried to help rouse her, Sabalenka's body language screamed "I've fallen into malaise and can't hit my way out" at times today.

Even after eight games, Sabalenka stressed then blinked in the ninth game.

Cirstea cranked a return winner for a second break point. Sabalenka spit up her third double fault to gift the break and a 5-4 lead to the Romanian after 32 minutes. Swiping her Wilson racquet at the court three times in succession, Sabalenka showed her frustration and it lingered for a bit into the next game.

Serving for the set, Cirstea didn't flinch. Despite serving just 37 percent in the opening set, Cirstea found her first serve when she needed it most smacking her second ace down the T to snatch a one-set lead after 36 minutes of sticky play.

"I knew coming in today I had to be aggressive, because as soon as you give her space, if you back up a little bit, I think you are done," Cirstea said. "I think I'm lucky, because I can do both. I can attack and I can defend as well. Mostly I prefer to attack. But I knew I had to come out swinging, and I had to be strong at the beginning, because once she gets that first few games, you know she's going to be on a roll, she starts swinging more and more and it's definitely difficult.

"So I think today the main thing was for me to be aggressive, not let her dictate the points, be solid, big targets, and yeah, serve well."

Though the scoreboard showed a temperature of 84 degrees, it must have felt more severely sweltering for both players as my t-shirt was wet with sweat just walking from the parking lot into the stadium. Sabalenka has handled heat and humidity in the past, but today Cirstea, whose parents own an ice cream factory in Romania, stayed cooler and calmer in the sweltering conditions. 

Seeking to cool down, Sabalenka took a bathroom break after opening set. Meanwhile, Cirstea, who was 8-1 when winning the first set in 2023, got out of her seat and did some quick footwork drills while the Bee Gees blared over the booming Hard Rock Stadium sound system.

Despite the break, Sabalenka couldn't quite flush frustration. She double faulted away a second straight break then flailed at the ball with her racquet in her left hand as if physically expressing to her box "I'm not feeling it."

The 32-year-old Romanian's serve speed won't scare you, but Cirstea was moving her serve around the box and defending the first shot after the return with stubborn commitment backing up the break for a 2-0 second-set lead.

The second-seeded Sabalenka dug in and fought through a tough hold in the third game snapping a slide of four games in a row. Afterward, Sabalenka buried her orange towel over her head, Vera Zvonareva-style, trying to mentally reset during the changeover.

Added patience and her powerful two-hander helped Sabalenka break back as she banged a backhand winner down the line to level after four games.

Staring down break point in the sixth game, Cirstea answered by sliding two aces down the T in a span of three points holding to level, 3-3.

In the opening set, the Cirstea return down the line proved pivotal. She changed it up by belting an inside-out backhand return winner for break point. Sabalenka ballooned a second serve long, marking the third time she surrendered serve on a double fault as Cirstea broke for 4-3.

Serving for the semifinals, Cirstea saw the Belarusian bang a backhand winner to reach love-30. The Romanian repelled two break points as Sabalenka went for two heavy drives and missed the mark on both occasions.

The slider down the T was money for Cirstea at crunch time today and she slid another ace on that same spot for match point. 

Cirstea matched Sabalenka's seven aces, but committed just two double faults compared to six Sabalenka costly double faults.

Despite the Romanian's success stinging that same spot, Sabalenka never quite seemed to recognize and cover it on the key points. One final serve down the T elicited a lunging return long.

For a split second, Cirstea paused to soak it all in that flashed a wide smile to coach Thomas Johansson. Meanwhile, Sabalenka, typically a fan friendly player, stalked off straight into the locker room stewing in annoyance over a match where she wasn't quite herself.


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