Saturday, December 9, 2023

Miami Open semifinal preview: Introducing Sorana Cirstea

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As befits a WTA Tour 1000 event, the Miami Open semifinals has more than its share of marquee power — Jessica Pegula and Elena Rybakina, ranked Nos.3 and 7. It will also feature either two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova or No.18 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, a quarterfinal match that was postponed Wednesday because of rain. 

And then there is the World No.74, the most unusual of suspects. Casual tennis fans, say hello to Sorana Cirstea.

We can tell you that the Romanian, who turns 33 the first week of April, started in the sport at the age of 4. As a 14-year-old, she appeared in her first ITF event, in Bucharest — a few months after Coco Gauff was born.

She’s an admirer of Stefanie Graf and, perhaps not coincidentally, the forehand is her favorite shot. Movies, shopping, reading and crosswords are among her off-court hobbies. Favorite cities are London and New York, big cities with lots to do.

Speaking of which, Cirstea has been doing some great things in south Florida on the way to a Friday semifinal matchup with Kvitova or Alexandrova. She’s already created an enviable list of career firsts:

  • In her first match against No.2-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, Cirstea won in straight sets, handing Sabalenka only her third loss of the year. Sabalenka is the highest-ranked player she’s ever beaten.
  • With victories over Sabalenka and No.5 Caroline Garcia, Cirstea has beaten two Top 5 opponents in a single tournament for the first time.
  • Cirstea is the first player ranked outside the Top 50 to win nine main-draw matches at the Sunshine Double in a single year.

This is her second career WTA 1000 semifinal. The first occurred nearly a decade ago in Toronto. Cirstea won that match against Li Na before falling to Serena Williams in the final. That gap is the second-longest ever, after Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s 11 years between 2010 Cincinnati and 2021 Madrid.

OK, just one more — Only Rybakina (12) has won more WTA 1000 main-draw matches this year than the 10 victories belonging to Cirstea and Barbora Krejcikova.

Thursday’s order of play:

–Not before 3 p.m. ET: [18] Ekaterina Alexandrova vs. [15] Petra Kvitova (singles quarterfinal)

–Not before 8:30 p.m. ET: [10] Elena Rybakina vs. [3] Jessica Pegula (singles semifinal)

While we wait to see who Cirstea plays Friday, here’s a breakdown of the other semifinal matchup, which will be Thursday night. 

Miami Open: Scores | Order of play | Draws

No.3 Jessica Pegula vs. No.10 Elena Rybakina

Technique and strategy are always critical, but in the most important matches down the stretch, fitness and stamina — and perseverance — come hugely into play. Here is another terrific example:

Rybakina, who plays her 11th match in 21 days, is trying to become only the fifth woman to win in Indian Wells and Miami back to back. Pegula waited through a nearly four-hour rain delay Tuesday night before saving two match points and winning a third-set tiebreak in her quarterfinal match, which ended past 1 a.m. This her eighth match in 20 days.

“I haven’t been that physically tired in just a really long time,” Pegula said after getting past Anastasia Potapova. “Just the humidity was taking so much out of me. It was just really tough, it was just pure will.”

This one will require more of the same. Rybakina (20-4) is looking for her 13th consecutive match-win. She’s the first player to reach her first two WTA 1000 semifinals in back-to-back tournaments since Sofia Kenin (Toronto and Cincinnati 2019). Pegula is 19-5 and looking to reach her second WTA Tour final of the season after Doha.

Pegula has a 2-0 head-to-head edge over the 2022 Wimbledon champion, but the most recent match was as close as can be. In her first match toward winning the Guadalajara WTA 1000 last fall, Pegula faced three match points before closing out Rybakina in a tiebreak.

“It was tough matches,” Rybakina said of those encounters after defeating Martina Trevisan in straight sets. “She’s really good player, very consistent. I will try just to do my best to try to be fresh somehow for that match.”

As always, the 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan will rely on her serve. Rybakina had 10 aces against Trevisan, and her 201 aces lead all Hologic WTA Tour players.

“I don’t mind playing her, at least in the past,” said Pegula, who was forced to save two match points in the last round against Potapova. “Obviously she’s picked up her level since then, so it’ll be a tough test, especially after this match, just physically see how I feel. Hopefully I can recover in time.”


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