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Naomi Osaka maintains No. 1 bid in Miami, Sabalenka, Svitolina advance
Reigning US and Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka won a 23rd straight match at the Miami Open on Monday, keeping her shot at usurping Ashleigh Barty atop the WTA rankings alive. Top seeds Aryna Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina also advanced.
Published Mar 29, 2021
Naomi Osaka won a 23rd straight match at the Miami Open on Monday, holding off a mid-match surge from Elise Mertens to knock out the No. 16 seed, 6-3. 6-3 and reach her first quarterfinal at the WTA-1000 event.
"For me it feels really exciting," she said after the match. "I mean, as a kid I grew up watching players play here, and I don't know. Like, Miami, of course the venue is different, but it definitely feels very special. This is one of my favorite tournaments to play, and of course I'm sad I haven't been able to get to the second week the last times that I have played this tournament. But I'm here now, and hopefully it will go well this time!"
Seeded second at the Hard Rock Stadium, Osaka maintained her bid at unseating current world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in 88 minutes on Grandstand court.
Osaka has won two of the last three major tournaments, and can return to the top of the WTA rankings by making the final or winning the title—the former if Barty, the defending Miami Open champion, falls before the semifinals. Undefeated since the COVID-19 lockdown ended last summer, the 23-year-old nonetheless came into the fourth round fresh after Nina Stojanovic had handed her a walkover for her previous match.
"I'm kind of giving myself no choice there, because I don't really play that many tournaments, but, yeah, I think for me just playing on the tour for a while I have sort of learned what works for me.
"I have always noticed that I'm not the type of player that really needs that many tournaments to feel a groove. In fact, I sort of started feeling like it was the opposite. I would get kind of burned out more quickly if I played more tournaments. So, yeah, I think that's the reason why I play the schedule that I play now."
Mertens won the Miami Open doubles title with Aryna Sabalenka back in 2019, and has also been in fine form since the resumption, starting the new season with a title at the Gippsland Trophy and a semifinal run at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The 25-year-old was in the midst of a career-best singles run in the Sunshine State, shaking off a second set bagel to defeat Anett Kontaveit in the third round on Sunday.
Having won her last two matches against the 2018 Australian Open semifinalist, Osaka appeared undaunted by Mertens’ ball early on, racing ahead 5-1, only for the contest to tighten when it came time to serve for the first set. Mertens scored her first break of the match and saved a whopping six set points over the next two games before Osaka closed it out on her seventh opportunity.
Mertens made a last stand in the second set, emerging from an exchange of breaks with a 3-2 advantage; Osaka ultimately reclaimed the momentum as her Belgian opposition began to struggle physically, calling for a medical timeout to address an apparent right shoulder injury.
Reeling off the final four games, Osaka overpowered Mertens on match point, forcing a forehand into the net to secure her spot in the last eight. In all, she struck 25 winners to 28 unforced errors, converting five of 14 break point opportunities while winning 66% of her first serve points.
The former world No. 1 will next face No. 23 seed Maria Sakkari, who outlasted No. 29 seed Jessica Pegula in a final-set tie-break. Osaka famously credited a 2018 Western & Southern Open loss to Sakkari with inspiring her to win her first major title at the US Open three weeks later.
"I feel like they are both really, really tough players. I have played Pegula once, and I feel like I have played Sakkari more than once. For me, I feel like I have been watching them play often on the TV, so whoever I'm going to play, it feels nice not playing someone that I don't have any information on."
Like Osaka, No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka was also in search of a first quarterfinal in Miami, and the Belarusian found it with the help of a 6-1, 6-2 dismissal of No. 19 seed Marketa Vondrousova.
Sabalenka had seemed out of sorts in the Middle East—losing to Garbiñe Muguruza in both Doha and Dubai—but has looked back to the form that helped her win 15 straight matches since surviving Tsvetana Pironkova earlier this week.
“In the first match I felt really sick and bad out there,” Sabalenka recalled in her post-match press conference. “It was really humid and really hot, and I was almost about to throw up there, but I was, like, ‘Keep going.’ I was so lucky to get that win in the first match.”
The 22-year-old will next play top seed Barty, against whom she has won her last three matches—including a Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open semifinal in 2019.
“She's playing really well. She's a tricky player, and it's not easy to play against her. I'll prepare myself as good as I can. I'll do my best in that match, make sure I can get this win, will fight until the end.”
Barty advanced after a rollercoaster affair with former doubles partner Victoria Azarenka earlier in the day.
No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina won one of the fortnight’s classics against Petra Kvitova, outlasting the No. 9 seed, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5. Svitolina has appeared similarly reinvigorated after an opening round tussle with American Shelby Rogers, and played some of her best tennis in over a year against the two-time Wimbledon winner.
“It's always a big battle to play against her because she strikes the ball very clean and you have to adjust extremely quick, like today was in the first set," Svitolina said. "Okay, I didn't play my best but still, she was stepping in. She was striking the ball extremely good. So for me, always a big challenge to play against her but also gives me lots of positives from winning those kind of matches.”
From a double break up in the deciding set, Svitolina saw several leads evaporate and lost serve in her first attempt to close out Kvitova, but held firm and thumped a fourth ace to edge into the quarterfinals, where she’ll play Anastasija Sevastova after the Latvian ended wildcard Ana Konjuh’s renaissance run, 6-1, 7-5.
“She tries to change the rhythm,” Svitolina notes of Sevastova.” For me it will be important to try to build smart and to play really smart against her. I played against her a couple of times as well on different surfaces.”