Tennis-Sabalenka wins battle of besties, Gracheva makes new friends

By Thomson Reuters Jun 1, 2024 | 11:16 AM

By Shrivathsa Sridhar

PARIS (Reuters) – Aryna Sabalenka overcame Paula Badosa in a testing third-round clash between best friends at the French Open on Saturday while Russian-born Varvara Gracheva won plenty of new admirers after she kept the flag flying for her adopted country.

Sabalenka and Badosa have become close but the 26-year-olds put their friendship aside ahead of their seventh career meeting, which promised to go the distance after a tight first set where breaks of serve flowed freely.

But Belarusian Sabalenka, who is bidding to become the first woman since Serena Williams nine years ago to win the Australian Open and Roland Garros titles in the same season, stepped up her game with power, precision and guile to seal a 7-5 6-1 win.

“On court we’re opponents, but off it we’re friends,” said Sabalenka. “I just saw her right now, walking from her meeting, and she seems to be pissed a little bit.

“But no, we’re very good on separating things.”

After Corentin Moutet gave French supporters a Friday night to savour on Court Suzanne Lenglen with a four-set victory over Sebastian Ofner, Gracheva lit up the same venue on a soggy day with a 7-5 6-3 win over Irina-Camelia Begu.

The last Frenchwoman left in the women’s draw was treated to a rousing rendition of the national anthem “La Marseillaise” and she joined the singing fans in celebration.

“I’ll remember this moment until the end of my life,” said a beaming Gracheva, who received her French passport in 2023 after living in the country for more than five years.

“It means that everyone accepts me, that I’m home here.”

While Gracheva was the centre of attention in the afternoon, fellow Moscow-born player Elena Rybakina continued to fly under the Roland Garros radar as the fourth seed cruised past Elise Mertens 6-4 6-2.

The Kazakh has had to endure her share of health struggles, including in Paris last year when she pulled out in the third round due to illness, but she said there was nothing a good night’s rest could not cure this time.

“I’ve been struggling a bit with sleep, some issues. So I had to skip tournaments. Also allergies and everything. Now I’m feeling pretty well and focused,” Rybakina said.

“I think everybody when they work a lot, it’s not easy to sleep. Then the recovery is not the greatest.”

Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 21st seed, returned to close out a 6-4 6-2 6-1 victory over American Ben Shelton under the Suzanne Lenglen roof, as persistent rain delayed action on the outer courts.

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar, editing by Ed Osmond)