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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Monday May 13, 2024

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka fought back from the brink to reach the quarterfinals at Rome, saving three match points to defeat former champ Elina Svitolina.

Photo Source: Getty

The race for the WTA’s No.2 ranking – and No.2 seed at Roland Garros – is well and truly on (more details and scenarios down the page).

Tennis Express

Aryna Sabalenka – true to form – isn’t about to give up ground. The Belarusian saved a trio of match points on Monday night, finishing her handiwork well after midnight as she scrambled to a gritty 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(7) victory over two-time champion Elina Svitolina at Rome.

“It was a great battle,” Sabalenka said on court after the tussle. “Somehow I managed to win this match.”

It was a tense two hour and 24-minute thriller that saw Sabalenka battle a lower back issue as she was forced to her ninth deciding set of this clay season. At her last two events alone, Sabalenka has played seven deciders, winning six. Sabalenka played five deciding sets in Madrid en route to the final where she fell to World No.1 Iga Swiatek in a third-set tiebreak, and she has already played a pair at Rome.

Not long after visiting with the trainer to remedy a back issue after the second set, Sabalenka was nearly in the taxi to the Fiumicino Airport, but she dug deep to save a pair of match points while serving at 5-6 in the third, then wiggled out of another at 7-6 down in the final set tiebreak.

A few hesitant moments for hard-charging Svitolina, and strong play from Sabalenka, made the difference in those moments. A 2017 and 2018 champion at Rome, Svitolina played exceptionally well in the contest, but she missed a backhand volley on Sabalenka’s first match point that could have put her over the top. On the next point Svitolina guided a backhand return of a Sabalenka second serve wide.

19th-ranked Svitolina, who came back from maternity leave just over a year ago, kept up the chase and saved a match point of her own to level the final set tiebreak at 6-all. One point later she had her third match point, but missed a return wide on a strong Sabalenka serve down the T.

From there Sabalenka won the final two points to close out her third victory in four tries against Svitolina.

Sabalenka has won seven of her nine deciding sets on clay this season, with wins from a set down in four of her last five.

“I know that if I bring my fighting spirit, and if I bring my tennis, I’m able to play on each surface,” Sabalenka said. “Doesn’t matter if the court is slower or faster, I’m just trying to adapt. I just try to focus on myself.”

No.2 Within Reach

The victory keeps Sabalenka in the hunt to retain the No.2 ranking after this week.

Coco Gauff, who defeated Paula Badosa on Monday, has a shot to steal the spot, but must outperform Sabalenka in Rome to do so.

It’s extremely important, because the World No.2 on Monday will be the No.2 seed at the French Open, thus avoiding having to face top-seeded Iga Swiatek until the final.

Here are the scenarios, via WTA Tour:

Gauff needs to reach at least the semifinals to chase down Sabalenka. If she does so, and Sabalenka has lost before the quarterfinals, then Gauff will become No.2 – a new career high for the 2023 US Open champion.

If Sabalenka reaches the quarterfinals or semifinals, Gauff can only overtake her by reaching the final. If Sabalenka makes the final, Gauff – who is in the opposite half of the draw – will need to defeat her there to climb to No.2.

The quarterfinals are set in Rome – Sabalenka will face ninth-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, while Gauff will take on China’s Zheng Qinwen.


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