Mirra Images: Andreeva and Paolini Shock Powerhouses

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Paris

ANOTHER 17-YEAR OLD RUSSIAN SHOCKS TENNIS: As the sun began to dip in the lovely Paris sky, a teenager lifted the most delicate of lobs to the French heavens, and a great tennis champion was left hapless. The match-winning shot from the gifted and mature Russian, Mirra Andreeva, sealed her stunning 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka.

Yes, the Belarusian struggled with her health throughout the match. Time and again she shuffled slowly and bent over. She clutched her stomach and slapped her thighs. She hit tame moonballs, donated 41 unforced errors and six double faults. One felt her pain.

Still, many suspected the battle-hardened 26-year-old, who’s won two Aussie Opens, would subdue the unseeded upstart, who could well have been playing the juniors. Just over a month ago, Aryna had dismissed Mirra 6-1, 6-4 in Madrid.

But Andreeva is a phenom – probably the WTA’s best since Coco Gauff. Last year in Paris, she qualified and reached the third round. She beat Ons Jabeur in Melbourne, and today, despite her tepid serve, displayed the patience and resilience of a veteran.

Her defense was sublime, her speed was a weapon. Andreeva became the youngest player to beat a top two seed since Jelena Dokic shocked Martina Hingis at Wimbledon in 1999.

One couldn’t help but think of another 17-year-old Russian blonde, Maria Sharapova, who beat another pretty good player, Serena Williams, to win Wimbledon 20 years ago.

Could Mirra possibly win Roland Garros? She plays Jasmine Paolini in Thursday’s semi and she beat the Italian 7-6(2), 6-4 just a few weeks ago in Madrid.

SWEET JASMINE: So what is it with this Italian tennis thing? Yesterday their guy, Signor Sinner, knocked Djokovic off his perch at the top of the rankings. Plus, they won the Davis Cup, they host the ATP championships and they have a slew of rising players. Most of them are guys, like top gun Jannik Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti, Matteo Arnaldi and Lorenzo Sonego. And there’s a gal, too.

Until last year, few had even heard of 28-year-old Jasmine Paolini, who’d long failed to break into the top 40. Her mindset hadn’t been great: “I’d step on court and I’d say, ‘I have to do a miracle.’” But last year she played some big matches, and gained confidence.

She’d previously never gotten beyond the second round of the French Open. The pundits felt that today would be the end of her fine run. She was facing the former Wimbledon champion, powerhouse Elena Rybakina, who has won three titles this year, recently beat Jasmine in Stuttgart and is No. 4.

“Big court, big match, big opponent,” noted broadcaster Eleanor Preston. But, so what? Paolini hit deep and played measured, error-free tennis, lost just one point on her serve and raced to a 6-2  first-set win in 30 minutes.

Rybakina was “flat as a crepe,” said Martina Navratilova. The lean six-footer had just won the Stuttgart Open , but has a history of illnesses. She’s spoken of her asthma, losing weight and having sleep problems. And today at times it almost seemed like she was sleep walking. She often was off balance and sprayed shots.

Twice she was down a break in the second set. Was she nervous? You never know with the poker-faced Kazakh. Paolini got up 4-3, 40-15, just five points from the match.

But Rybakina counterattacked and took the second set. The two often traded breaks. Then a flurry of Rybakina errors sank her ship, as Paolini won the match of her career, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. For the first time ever, Italy would have both a man and a woman in the semis of a Slam.

Elena admitted she was “struggling a little bit with health issues,” but wouldn’t go into any details.

Paolini spoke of her win, saying “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I think I be a little emotional in the second set. The key is just forget what happened. It’s normal, it’s tennis.”

Court announcer Marion Bartoli told Jasmine, “There are matches and there are moments that can change an entire life. Everyone fell in love with you today for your game, for your smile, for who you are. ”

DJOKOVIC SURGERY? The French paper L’Equipe reported that Djokovic has undergone knee surgery today in Paris. Other reports suggest that the Serb will miss both Wimbledon and the Olympics.

GO FIGURE: Andy Murray probably will be the only one of the Big Four to play Wimbledon. And Sir Andy might retire there.

THE JAB THAT LINGERS: After Novak Djokovic slipped on the clay in his fourth-round match, the Serb sarcastically lashed out: “Great job. You know better than us. It’s not slippery at all. Not dangerous at all. Well done supervisor and everyone. Ground staff, well done.”

IT’S A MYSTERY: Sometimes the decision-making of French tennis bosses is inspired. They took in Yannick Noah from the Cameroons and helped him thrive. They’ve upgraded Roland Garros over the years. They sure know how to honor their retiring stars – and their Court Suzanne Lenglen and Court Simon-Mathieu are splendid venues. We like their roofs and, of course, their food rocks. Bon appetit!

But often there are problems. They bulldozed one of the most enchanting stadiums in the world, the Bullring. Security controls sometimes seem nonsensical. They over do it. And they still haven’t figured out the details of the night sessions, which too often finish at ungodly hours.

Plus, why did all ten night matches feature guys? You don’t have to be a Billie Jean King feminist to scratch your head about this one. And why didn’t they give the Naomi Osaka-Iga Swiatek battle (that turned out to be an epic) a prime time slot? Similarly, why was the Coco Gauff-Ons Jabeur quarterfinal put on so early – at 11:00 am?

Why was there a two-hour gap on center court between matches on Monday? And why was the problematic Alexander Zverev featured three times at night?

DOUBLETAKES: The suddenly considerable doubles team Coco Gauff and Katerina Siniakova are into the women’s doubles semifinal. There will be an American in the final. Coco and Katerina will be facing Americans Desirae Krawczyk and Caroline Dolehide. Jasmine Paolini and Sara Errani are also into the semis, and Mirra Andreeva is still in the doubles, too. So, amazingly, Gauff, Paolini and Andreeva could still possibly win both the singles and the doubles titles.

YET ANOTHER SPANISH GENTLEMAN: When speaking of the ascendance of Jannik Sinner to the No. 1 slot, his rival Carlos Alcaraz brings to mind the deeply deferential attitude that Rafa Nadal always had when he was No. 2 behind Roger Federer.

He always modestly noted the Swiss was “the best player in the world – no?” Alcaraz said Sinner was the reason he gets up in the morning and tries to become a better player. He also noted the obvious, that their Friday semifinal is “the match everyone wants to see.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Keep smiling – keep winning.” – Mats Wilander, to Carlos Alcaraz

SPANISH ACCENT: A Spaniard has been in the Roland Garros semis for 17 of the last 20 years.

THE FIFTH BEATLE?  Stefanos Tsitsipas is a compelling charismatic player who’s reached two Slam finals, has a gorgeous backhand and a romance with a pretty tennis star – Paula Badosa.

But after his sixth straight loss to Carlos Alcaraz, broadcaster Marcus Buckland said, “Stefanos Tsitsipas will have to answer some questions. Otherwise he will forever be known as the fifth Beatle.”

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