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Azarenka steps up her clay game by beating Stephens at Italian Open

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka - The Canadian Press

ROME (AP) — Two Americans who tasted success at a young age and then struggled to maintain their level produced upset victories at the Italian Open on Thursday.

Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion who has dealt with injuries, beat the reigning Australian Open champion and second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (4), 6-2; and Taylor Townsend, once a junior prodigy now on the comeback trail after maternity leave, eliminated third-ranked Jessica Pegula 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Kenin is ranked No. 134 while Townsend is No. 168 and had to go through qualifying.

Townsend is also celebrating a career-high ranking of No. 6 in doubles this week, helped by her partnership with Leylah Fernandez.

“I’m just really proud of myself. I’ve been working really hard over the past couple of years to come back,” Townsend said. “Moments like these are what it’s all about.”

It was Kenin's first win over a top-10 player since beating top-ranked Ash Barty en route to her title Down Under more than three years ago.

Sabalenka was coming off the Madrid Open title.

Coco Gauff, another American and last year’s French Open runner-up, routed Yulia Putintseva 6-0, 6-1 in another second-round match on the red clay courts of the Foro Italico.

“I usually have long matches with her. I was fully prepared for that. But I told myself to play on my terms, not her terms,” Gauff said. “She’s obviously a tricky player, has some big wins. Made the quarters of the French a couple times. I know clay is her surface. It’s also kind of mine, too, so it was a good match today.”

Fresh off a doubles title in Madrid, Victoria Azarenka stepped up her singles game by defeating Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-3.

Stephens was coming off a singles title at a smaller clay-court event in Saint Malo, France, while Azarenka lost her singles opener in Madrid.

“I was definitely quite nervous before the match,” Azarenka said. “I felt like I didn’t have too many matches under my belt and Sloane just won the tournament, so I knew she’s in a good form, so I just tried to kind of stay focused on myself.”

Azarenka will next face 2016 Rome runner-up Madison Keys, who overcame Polish qualifier Magdalena Frech 6-3, 6-2.

Karolina Pliskova, the 2019 Rome champion and two-time runner-up, was eliminated by Hungarian qualifier Anna Bondar 7-6 (5), 6-2.

In men’s first-round action, Albert Ramos-Vinolas rallied past Italian wild card Francesco Passaro 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 to set up a rematch with Carlos Alcaraz. Alcaraz won their five-setter at last year’s French Open.

Lorenzo Sonego celebrated his 28th birthday with a dominant 6-2, 6-1 win over Jeremy Chardy.

Also, David Goffin rallied past 19-year-old Luca Nardi 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 on Campo Centrale and will next play 2017 champion Alexander Zverev; and German qualifier Daniel Altmaier beat Italian wild card Giulio Zeppieri 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-0 on the picturesque statue-lined Pietrangeli court.

Rome is the last big warmup before the French Open starts at the end of the month.


Andrew Dampf is at


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