Iga Swiatek was pushed to three sets for the first time at this year's Australian Open, but the No.7 seed from Poland eventually prevailed against Sorana Cirstea 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 on Monday to reach her first quarterfinal at this event.
The 2020 Roland Garros champion will meet the unseeded Kaia Kanepi, who triumphed in a contest of wild momentum swings to upset No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka 5-7, 6-2, 7-6(7). Kanepi is into her seventh Grand Slam quarterfinal but first at the Australian Open. At the age of 36 she has now reached that stage at every major.
Swiatek is into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal outside of Paris, where she also reached the last eight in 2021. However, she had to survive a stern test from World No.38 Cirstea before ultimately triumphing in a hard-fought 2-hour, 28-minute battle.
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Words from the winner: "For sure, she put a lot of pressure on me," Swiatek said in her post-match press conference. "I just had to overcome some doubts that I had. I did that pretty well, because I don't have a good statistic in terms of coming back after losing first sets. So it's still something I'm working on.
"These kind of matches are going to give me a lot of confidence for the future, because coming back from losing in the first set and against a player who's constantly going forward, it's pretty hard, and I did that. I feel like I can approach these different scenarios on court, and at the end it's pretty positive."
Honesty is the best policy 😅@iga_swiatek • #AusOpen • #AO2022 pic.twitter.com/ANUvegxG6c— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2022
Fast facts: Swiatek was the only player last season to make the fourth round or better at all four Grand Slam events. Despite being pushed hard by Cirstea, Swiatek now has a 29-2 win-loss record against opponents ranked outside the Top 30 in her Grand Slam history.
Cirstea was a set away from reaching her second Grand Slam quarterfinal, and her first in 13 years, since she reached that stage at 2009 Roland Garros. However, the former World No.21 was unable to hold on and collect the 16th Top 10 win of her career.
Nevertheless, this week's result continues a strong resurgence for the 31-year-old Cirstea, who ended a 13-year-drought between WTA singles titles last year in Istanbul. Cirstea has improved her ranking nearly 50 spots over the past 12 months.
✅ #AusOpen PB achieved 🎯@iga_swiatek | #AO2022pic.twitter.com/N8QoDaXWOQ— wta (@WTA) January 24, 2022
Stat corner: Little separated the two powerful players statistically during their first meeting. Swiatek's 29 winners were nearly matched by the 27 from the Romanian's racquet, and the Pole had only three more unforced errors than Cirstea.
Swiatek was sturdier winning first-service points, winning 76 percent of those points while Cirstea had a 58 percent success rate. But Cirstea kept things close by claiming an excellent 76 percent of Swiatek's second-service points.
In the long run, Swiatek got enough of her first serves into play (64 percent) to make that disparity work in her favor. Overall, Swiatek saved eight of the 12 break points she faced while converting six of her 14 break chances.
No.1 ranking scenarios:— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 24, 2022
- No.1 Ashleigh Barty will secure her top spot by advancing to the #AusOpen semifinals.
- If Barty does not advance to the semifinals, No.4 Barbora Krejcikova can overtake her by winning the #AusOpen title. pic.twitter.com/MeZBjlokFj
Match moments: Aggressive play by Cirstea gave her the critical break for 6-5 in the opening set, and she stormed her way through a love hold to claim the one-set lead. However, Swiatek nudged herself ahead in the winner count during the second set, where she broke Cirstea twice to level the clash.
In the third set, Swiatek saved four break points to grit out a pivotal service hold for 2-2, but three consecutive breaks followed, which ended with Swiatek ahead 4-3. The Pole fended off thunderous returns by Cirstea to hold for 5-3, then slammed a forehand winner down the line to convert her first match point in the following game.
Kanepi completes career set of Grand Slam quarterfinals
Former World No.15 Kanepi first made the last eight of a major at Roland Garros 2008, and over the years became a regular fixture at that stage. The Estonian was also a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon 2010, the US Open 2010, Roland Garros 2012, Wimbledon 2013 and the US Open 2017 - but until this fortnight had yet to pass the third round at the Australian Open.
But Kanepi completed the set in style, becoming the 15th active player to have reached the last eight at every Grand Slam. She came through a series of wild momentum swings to defeat Sabalenka for the second time in as many meetings, having previously upset the Belarusian 6-1, 2-6, 6-1 in the Gippsland Trophy second round last year. This result was Kanepi's 14th career Top 10 win, and ninth at a Grand Slam.
Match management: Kanepi finished with 30 winners balanced by 30 unforced errors, while Sabalenka exceeded her in both categories with 36 winners and 46 unforced errors (including 15 double faults). But the contest was decided less by the overall numbers as their timing. For long stretches, both big hitters posted sequences of authoritative holds. But in the most crucial passages of play, predictability went out of the window.
In the first set, Sabalenka seemed to blink first. Having served just one double fault until 5-5, the World No.2 committed three in one game to face her first break points of the day - only to pull herself together and dominate from the baseline to win the last eight points of the set.
Never count @KanepiKaia out 🙅♀️— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2022
At 36 years of age, world No.115 upsets world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka 5-7 6-2 7-6 to reach the #AusOpen quarterfinals for the very first time.#AO2022 pic.twitter.com/358aIfkf1R
But five more Sabalenka double faults in her first two service games of the second set, including two in a row to fall behind a double break, handed momentum back to Kanepi. The World No.115 took full advantage: for a set and a half, she played scintillating tennis. Dominating with her forehand, Kanepi raced through the second set and took a 4-2 lead in the third with a gloriously angled winner.
But three break points for 5-2 came and went after Sabalenka found her biggest serves to grit out the hold. She followed that by emerging on top of another multi-deuce tussle, levelling at 4-4 as Kanepi suddenly became error-prone.
The plot twists kept coming. Instead of building on that momentum, Sabalenka coughed up another three double faults in the next game, and lost seven points in a row to face triple match point. But Kanepi, missing by inches on each of the four she held in that game, could not close the deal. In the ensuing super-tiebreak, a 5-2 lead also evaporated.
But despite Sabalenka's valiant comeback efforts, her accuracy with her back to the wall was not equalled when she had a chance to take the lead herself. Down 8-7, Kanepi barely got a return back into play, but Sabalenka ballooned the short forehand over the baseline; and Kanepi converted her fifth match point after Sabalenka put a backhand into the net.
Kanepi on nerves at the finishing line: "I was really tight," she said afterward. "My hand was shaking when I started serving. I didn't make any first serves in, and that added to the pressure.
"First, I tried to hit [the serve] a bit harder with more spin. Then it didn't go in. Then I started to hit a bit slower. I tried different things to think about than the serve, but I don't think any of them helped.
"I almost didn't [regroup]. I guess I was just lucky at the end. So close."
Kanepi on her next opponent: The quarterfinals will pit Kanepi, the oldest player remaining in the draw, against the youngest in Swiatek. The pair have not met before.
"I haven't watched her, I never played her, and I don't know how her ball feels, so we'll see when I play her," Kanepi said. "What I expect is to play good."