The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, May 11, 2021

How the road to Roland Garros runs through Rome — Quotes from Sabalenka, Barty & Badosa from Madrid — Must-click women's tennis links

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Road to Roland Garros Continues

The European red clay season is full steam ahead with the WTA 1000 event in Rome, Italy. First, please see perhaps the most beautiful court in all of tennis, Stadio Pietrangeli.

Last year, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia was held after the US Open with Simona Halep taking the title when Karolina Pliskova retired. Before play began, this was your main draw:

As you can see in WTA Insider’s tweet, Bianca Andreescu had to pull out due to the Italian government’s strict COVID-19 protocol and the Canadian’s recent positive test. Venus Williams accepted a wildcard, but withdrew and is expected to play in Strasbourg the week before Roland Garros. Karolina Muchova also withdrew and Sloane Stephens entered as a lucky loser, facing off against best friend Madison Keys. That should be one of the more intriguing matchups.

I don’t know about you, but my eyes quickly went to see where Serena Williams ended up and she’s in the same quarter as Naomi Osaka. There’s obvious reasons why their encounters are juicy, but Osaka was the last player to face Serena at the Australian Open. Three months later, the GOAT is back on tour, but can she work her way into form in her lone claycourt warmup? Only time will tell, but the 23-time Grand Slam champion has been keeping fit, even though she’s not posting about it.

The draw is set up for a third consecutive rematch between Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka and honestly, don’t be surprised to see Sabalenka come through that one. This tournament favors bigger hitters usually and she’s high on confidence. With that said, should Serena and Osaka face off, I’d put my money on the former. Osaka still needs to find some rhythm following a disappointing result in Madrid. Halep and Pliskova can meet in the quarterfinals, but Pliskova isn’t playing her best tennis. I’m honestly unsure if she’ll make it that far, but Halep is a near-lock to go deep at nearly every clay event.

Sofia Kenin’s quarter is the most-open, in my opinion and I can’t see the American making the semifinals here. Remember, it was here in September she was the first reigning Grand Slam champion and Top 5 player in 15 years to lose 6-0, 6-0 when Victoria Azarenka demolished her. Two Roland Garros champions — Iga Swiatek (2020) and Garbine Muguruza (2016) sit in that quarter and can escape that section. My gut leans a little bit in favor of Elina Svitolina, though. She’s tough as nails, especially on clay and doesn’t mind to have lost a little bit of the target on her back she gained. Don’t be surprised to see the Ukrainian sneak out a deep run here.

The Serena stan in me says she’s the contender at every tournament she plays, but such a long layoff doesn’t bode well. I see her winning some matches and possibly knocking out Osaka, but to take out Halep too? It’s a tough ask. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I would say to pencil in a Sabalenka-Halep final with the Romanian scraping out a win over the exhausted Belarusian. You could swap out Sabalenka with Barty, too — it’s a serious toss-up.

Now, learn some Italian and enjoy the tennis!

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Former Doubles No. 1 Barbora Strycova announced her retirement following her pregnancy reveal. The Czech did say she would like to come back to properly say goodbye with fans — with hopes of that farewell at next year’s Wimbledon.

Aryna Sabalenka captured the biggest title of her career at the Mutua Madrid Open, taking the WTA 1000 title with a three-set win over No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. Be sure to check out WTA Insider’s Champions Corner with the Belarusian, and their Madrid wrap, as well. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova took home their second title of the year in doubles, taking out Demi Schuurs and Gaby Dabrowski. WTA Insider also did an edition of Champions Corner with the duo.

Viktorija Golubic left the WTA $125k in Saint-Malo, France in the winners circle, extending her momentum this season with a straight-set win over Jasmine Paolini. In doubles, Americans Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria won their first-ever WTA-level trophy, shocking top-seeded Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani. The NCAA continues to wreak havoc on the doubles tour!

Elise Mertens became the second Belgian to ascend to the Doubles No. 1 ranking and 45th player overall. In the weekly rankings, Aryna Sabalenka cracked the Top 5 in the singles rankings for the first time, but also soared to No. 3 the in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen.

The Sweet 16 at the NCAA Divison I Women’s Tournament is set for this week and I went 15/16, with only No. 9 UCF holding their seed and downing Miami in the second round. Stay tuned for more specific coverage next week!

Heidi El Tabakh didn’t envision herself staying in tennis post-retirement, but the former No. 146 has found herself as a force in the coaching world, including captaining the Canadian Billie Jean King Cup squad.

Speaking of the BJK Cup, Budapest announced they are pulling out of hosting the 2021 Finals. I have a few options of who should host: New York City, Prague, maybe even Indian Wells?

Naomi Osaka and Billie Jean King were honored for their leadership on and off the court at the Laureus Sports Awards.

Alex Macpherson wrote a great getting to know piece on Italian rising star Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who is sitting at a career-high ranking and playing her best tennis.

Sloane Stephens announced a swimsuit collaboration with Solid & Striped, while Naomi Osaka shared hers with Frankie’s Bikinis. Speaking of Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion opened up about maintaining positive mental health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In coaching news, two players split from their longtime coaches — their fathers. It will be very interesting to see how both Sofia Kenin and Caroline Garcia do without their large presence. Magda Linette also announced her split from Nick Horvat following loss.

Sara Sorribes Tormo continues her stellar three-set record in 2021 and took out Camila Giorgi in the sixth-longest match — of the Open Era — in the opening round in Rome:

Claire Liu is on fire on the ITF World Tour. Last week, she took home her first title above the $25k level at the $60k in Charlotteville. This past weekend, she secured the $100k event in Charleston, knocking out top-seed Madison Brengle in the final. She’s no zeroing in on a Top 100 debut.

Marta Kostyuk and the doubles team of Marie Bouzkova/Lucie Hradecka were announced as the fan-voted shots of the month for April.

Chris Evert chats with Caroline Wozniacki in the latest episode of the WTA series One on One with Chris Evert.

Tweet of the Week

The IX’s own Advisory Board member, Megan Rose, got a special shout out from her alum. Perhaps we have a future Hurricane Hall of Famer taking in some NCAA action?

Five at the IX: Mutua Madrid Open

Q. Your results on the clay are obviously so incredible compared to what they have been in the past. In your mind, what have you able to do in the last few weeks on clay? Do you see it differently now how much you can accomplish on clay?

ARYNA SABALENKA: I would say before I was too much thinking about the clay court, that this is surface not for me, that it’s really tough to play on this surface, it’s long rallies. I was really too much thinking about this.

This year I kind of relaxed and kind of just play my game. I worked a lot on the movement, so I prepare myself really well for the clay court. Yeah, I just stay aggressive. This is just a little bit longer rallies here on the clay court than on the hard court. This is different. I just have to put, like, extra few balls in the court like more than on the hard court. This is the difference.

My focus is just on my game, that I have to stay aggressive, that I have to move well on the clay court, make sure I can hit these shots really clean, heavy shots.

Yeah, just something change in my mind for the clay court for this year. I’m not really scared of this surface any more (smiling).

Q. Did you feel maybe the fatigue was catching up to you a bit, playing so many matches?

ASHLEIGH BARTY: Yeah, it’s a good problem to have. I think any time you can play a lot of matches and a lot of tennis, it means you’re putting yourself out there over and over again.

Of course there was a little bit of fatigue. Aryna also played a lot of tennis. There wasn’t much physically in it. It was more she was able to take her opportunity at the end. There’s certainly no shame in losing 4 in the third in a final to a top-10 player. I have absolutely no shame about that, no regrets.

I’m really proud of the week, kind of the month we’ve had since we’ve been away. It’s been a great start. We look to bigger and better things.

Q. You’re smiling so much. Do you smile always like that or this is a special week, special evening? You just said you like to enjoy the life and you’re happy that the crowd is around. I would like to know more.

ARYNA SABALENKA: Wow. I would say, like, life is too short to focus on the bad things. I’m just trying to stay positive and just trying to enjoy my life.

But, yeah, I was always like this. I’m always smiling, always having fun. Of course, sometimes I’m crying. Sometimes I have bad days. But, yeah, when I’m here in Madrid and I’m playing my best and I see fans watching, there is nothing to be worried about and to be sad about.

Yeah, this week I’m definitely happy person. Hopefully I just keep going like this.

Q. It sounds like you’re hungry to get back on the court and play matches. How do you balance the idea of I’m playing great tennis, I want to play right now, versus I also want to be well-rested and prepared, be 100% for my favorite slam?

PAULA BADOSA: Yeah, I think my it coach job. I was talking to him right now. I was saying, I want to go to Rome to play already Saturday.

He said, Calm down, you need to rest. It’s been an amazing week.

Sometimes when it’s your first experience like everything on my first semifinals, it’s a little bit new for me. Mentally it’s tough, as well.

I think the most smartest thing is to rest, to get ready with the other tournaments. I’ll go to Belgrade, then I think Strasbourg, depends a little bit, then Roland Garros. I will try to play all the three tournaments because on clay I’m feeling well and I’m with confidence.

Q. We all know you’re a no- fuss person, just get on with things. What is the best thing of your life? What is the best part of your life, the career that you have?

ASHLEIGH BARTY: I think that’s a compliment, saying I’m no-fuss.

Q. It is.

ASHLEIGH BARTY: Thank you (smiling).

The best part of my life, without a doubt, is my family, my team. All of these amazing experiences I get to experience, and they get to enjoy it with me. I wouldn’t be half the person I am without them. I wouldn’t have anywhere near the enjoyment if I couldn’t do it with them.

Being able to share all these cool moments with Tyz, with my physio, my trainer, my professional family, because they are my family, but also my personal family, without them I’m nothing.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam,
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.