Greek nearing historic first at RG

Valentini Grammatikopoulou announcing herself as third name in Greek tennis.

 - Dan Imhoff

Following in the footsteps of a prodigious, trailblazing Greek pair comes with its perks for Valentini Grammatikopoulou.

She is breaking fresh ground of her own in Roland-Garros qualifying and admits the support from Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari is playing a part.

At 22, and just 5’4”, the third – though less heralded – name in Greek tennis stands one victory from making her Grand Slam debut after saving two match points to deny Briton Heather Watson 7-5, 6-7(6), 7-6(3) after two hours and 36 minutes.

Only American Varvara Lepchenko can prevent the world No.193 joining her compatriots in the Roland-Garros main draw.

For the second time in as many matches Grammatikopoulou prevailed in three tough sets and again thanks to a newfound grit, a mental toughness that had sometimes previously deserted her in key matches.

Learning from her compatriots

It was a discussion with world No.29 Sakkari, which had left an indelible mark.

“Actually my friend, Maria, who is a top-30 player, says you don’t have to play your best to win and I felt it today that I didn’t play my best tennis and won,” Grammatikopoulou said.

“Only just when I need I have to play [my best], but not all the time. Before the second round I wanted to play every shot unbelievable but after experience with these girls you have to understand you have to play it on a few important shots and that’s the difference.”

In a match strewn with momentum swings and at times, a complete dearth in momentum, it was Grammatikopoulou who lifted when it mattered most deep in the third set.

Despite letting a 5-3 lead slip, the Greek steadied to claim the opening set but upon opening up the same lead in the second she came unstuck, fraught with nerves as she served for the match.

Watson pounced on the momentum shift and after the pair traded a string of breaks, it was the Brit who held match points on serve at 5-4 in the third, only for her younger opponent to kick into gear.

“This match is really important for me,” Grammatikopoulou said. “It’s my first time winning [Grand Slam qualifying] second round and first time from two match points down.

“It’s the first time I didn’t give up when I had chances and first time when I was 3-0 down [in the third set], I still kept my cool.”

In the deciding tie-break, and with her back to the wall again, Grammatikopoulou began to rip backhand winners.

She was not willing to crash out wondering.

“Some of the other Grand Slams I was up as well and felt I was tight,” she said. “In the third set I thought play in front, enjoy and relax.

“Mentally is the toughest for me … I have to work on that, as Maria did as Stefanos did. You win half of the match mentally and now I’m slowly understanding what it means.”

Top seed advances

Earlier, top seed Bernarda Pera made a smoother progression to the final round of qualifying with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over China’s Zhang Kai-Lin.

The Croatian-born American will ride a six-match winning streak on the clay into her final match against Slovenia’s 18-year-old Youth Olympics gold medallist Kaja Juvan, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over 15-year-old American Cori Gauff.

Pera was unlucky to miss direct entry into the main draw with her ranking rising back up to world No.83 after victory in an ITF event in Slovakia last week. But the points boost came after Roland-Garros entry deadlines.

“I kind of have to block it out. I knew I would have to play qualies anyway so I was just prepared to play three rounds,” Pera said.

“I mean I love clay, it’s my favourite surface and I think I’m playing well at the moment. I’m just trying to keep it that way.”

Other results

Also on Thursday, former world No.9 and two-time Roland-Garros semi-finalist Timea Bacsinszky was beaten. The Swiss succumbed to Japan’s Kurumi Nara in three sets. Nara will need to beat another Swiss, Conny Perrin, to qualify.

Former world No.25 Timea Babos closed to within one victory of her sixth Roland-Garros main draw with a narrow three-set victory over Italian Martina Trevisian. The Hungarian will next meet Moldova-born Spaniard Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov.

Brit Katie Swan backed up her upset of second seed Jill Teichmann, beating Wang Xiyu to set a third round clash again Slovak Kristina Kucova,

Russian 19-year-old Sofya Zhuk closed in on reaching her second Grand Slam main draw, bouncing back to deny Liechtenstein’s Kathinka von Deichmann. She will meet Belgium’s Greet Minnen, a victor over eighth seed Natalia Vikhlyantseva.