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Jabeur, Kasatkina to meet; winner will face Swiatek

Four players remain in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, but one name stands out above the rest. Iga Swiatek is riding a 26-match winning streak that dates back to mid-February. 

Up next in her quest for a fourth straight WTA 1000-level title (and fifth straight title overall) is Aryna Sabalenka. The No.8-ranked player in the world, Sabalenka is looking to win a season-high fourth straight match-win. 

In the other semifinal Saturday, No.9 Ons Jabeur will take on Daria Kasatkina. 

How will these play out? We make the case for each player:

No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. No.3 Aryna Sabalenka

Case for Swiatek

Who’s going to stop Iga Swiatek now? Not former World No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, who in 2012 also had a 26-match winning streak. Not Bianca Andreescu, a former junior peer who also ascended quickly to the ranks of Grand Slam winners. Swiatek has been unstoppable. Only Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Justine Henin won more consecutive matches this century, but Swiatek is accepting the pressure with equanimity.

“Consistency was the thing I really wanted to work on last year — this year I feel like it clicked, so I’m pretty happy,” she said after defeating Andreescu.

In light of all this, not Aryna Sabalenka, either. Swiatek has won both of their encounters this year, losing only nine games in total. In those matches, she was at ease with everything Sabalenka threw at her. If anything, the slow clay of Rome, where Swiatek won the title last year, only benefits her even more.

If Swiatek has a potential weakness, it’s facing opponents with outright power. Two of her three losses this season came against big hitters in Danielle Collins at the Australian Open and Jelena Ostapenko in Dubai. The only set Swiatek has lost in her past 39 came against Liudmila Samsonova in Stuttgart.

But Collins, Ostapenko and Samsonova all possess a different kind of power to Sabalenka: flatter and closer to the lines, and a more extreme commitment to first-strike tennis. Sabalenka’s rise into the Top 5 was based around reining those tendencies in, overwhelming opponents with force while still aiming well inside the court. That’s how she turned her quarterfinal against Amanda Anisimova around. But that’s not a strategy that will work against Swiatek. — Alex Macpherson

Case for Sabalenka

Finally. That was Sabalenka’s reaction after she fired an ace to reach her second clay semifinal of the season and first on clay. But her relief wasn’t just about making a breakthrough in Rome. She had gone 0-4 against Amanda Anisimova, including two losses during this clay swing, in Charleston and Madrid, but Sabalenka kept her cool and altered her game plan. Instead of trying to outhit the American, Sabalenka played a more solid, disciplined game. Anisimova’s rally tolerance was tested, and with it, her confidence buckled.

Rome: Scores | Order of play | Draw

Sabalenka is at her most dangerous when she has a clear mind and is willing to make in-match adjustments. She beat Swiatek in their first encounter last year, at the WTA Finals, but has not won a set against the Pole in two matches this year. Sabalenka says she’s learned from her mistakes in those matches. The biggest learning has been to keep the emotions out of it.

“Before the final in Stuttgart, I was thinking wrong,” Sabalenka told WTA Insider. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, someone has to stop this girl.’ That wasn’t right from me. That’s why I was going crazy on every point she was making because I really wanted to beat her. I was getting aggressive and my behavior was crazy.

“This time I just want to find a way to beat her. This is the big difference. She’s aggressive, she’s playing well, she can hit great shots from whatever position in the court. You have to stay in the point as long as is needed and try to find the way.” — Courtney Nguyen

No.9 Ons Jabeur vs. Daria Kasatkina 

Case for Jabeur

Staring down the barrel of a meek quarterfinal exit at the hands of Maria Sakkari, Jabeur steadied herself and engineered an incredible comeback. From 6-1, 5-2 down, Jabeur won 10 of the next 11 games to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, extending her winning streak to 10 matches.

“Today the match for me was mental more than anything else,” Jabeur said afterward. “Physically, I felt good. The fact that I have the confidence, I think that gave me the opportunity to win today.”

Jabeur keeps proving that unchartered territory is no problem. The 27-year-old came into Rome without a win at the Foro Italico. Now she’s into her third semifinal of the clay season and a victory away from her second consecutive WTA 1000 final. The win over Sakkari was her first on clay against a Top 5-ranked player.

Rome: Jabeur notches 10th straight win with comeback over Sakkari

2022 Rome

Jabeur’s game has always been there, but her self-belief, discipline and confidence have propelled her to new heights. A junior Roland Garros champion, her swashbuckling game has always been at home on the terre battue.

Jabeur is on a three-match winning streak against Kasatkina, with all three wins coming in the past 12 months. It will be a tactical chess match between the two, but Jabeur’s confidence has been unshakable. She has taken only three losses to players outside the Top 20 this season, with two coming to Belinda Bencic and Simona Halep.

“Never easy to play Dash, even though I know I won the last few matches before,” Jabeur said. “She’s such a fighter. I love her. I love her team. They’re doing incredible work.

“It’s going to be probably a great match, a great opportunity for me to get to the finals.” – Courtney Nguyen

Case for Kasatkina

Daria Kasatkina is into her first semifinal at a WTA 1000 clay-court event, and it feels like it has been a long time coming. Kasatkina has posted strong results on all surfaces throughout her career, but clay tends to line up best with her game.

Kasatkina has extended rallies beyond 15 shots 27 times this week, more than any other player in the draw. Her rally tolerance, bolstered by the slower surface, helped her extract numerous errors from World No.3 Paula Badosa in the Round of 16, leading to her third win against a Top 10 player this season.

“My legs have to work good,” Kasatkina said after making it past an injured Jil Teichmann into the semifinals. “My legs have to be fast. I have to be low on the legs to play good. Without the legs, there is no one shot I can make good, unfortunately. I am not Nick Kyrgios.”

However, Kasatkina is selling herself short, as her weighty forehand and array of drop shots have been effective as well. She also had the most service breaks (24) out of the semifinalists.

Kasatkina has the daunting task of ending the 10-match winning streak of Ons Jabeur if she wants to make it into her second WTA 1000 final. Like Kasatkina, Jabeur has a solid forehand and excellent touch at her disposal. Jabeur had these merits on her side when she defeated Kasatkina in their only previous clay-court meeting, in Stuttgart last month.

But on the slower clay of Rome, Kasatkina’s assets become even more potent. With an impressive record against the game’s elite behind her (she has won six of her past eight matches against Top 5 opposition), Kasatkina could be the one to halt Jabeur’s run. – Jason Juzwiak

 


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