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Tennis: Rybakina still adjusting to clay as French Open title bid continues

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By Hritika Sharma

(Reuters) – Elena Rybakina has cemented her status as one of the front-runners for French Open title after continuing her fine run on clay in Paris but the world number four is still finding her feet on the surface as she looks to dethrone Iga Swiatek.

After winning at Indian Wells and reaching the Australian Open and Miami finals, Wimbledon champion Rybakina triumphed at the Italian Open on the slow, damp claycourts in Rome to announce herself as a player for all surfaces.

The Moscow-born Kazakh player will aim to stretch her claycourt winning run to nine matches when she faces Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in the third round on Saturday, after seeing off rising Czech teenager Linda Noskova in straight sets.

“I cannot say that here it’s easy for me,” said Rybakina, whose first Grand Slam quarter-final came in Paris two years ago when she beat Serena Williams for her first top-10 win on clay.

Rybakina, a member of the new ‘Big Three’ along with defending champion Swiatek and second seed Aryna Sabalenka, struggled with Noskova’s powerful serve and thundering forehand but earned a straight-sets win on Thursday.

“From my side I wasn’t happy so much with the percentage of the serve, (there were) a lot of mistakes,” fourth seed Rybakina added. “I would say I was rushing again.

“I think it’s just different for me, and longer preparations physically just because you need to slide a lot. Physically the rallies are longer … I need more patience.”

“But I think that I can play good. Just with experience over the years and matches I can get just better and better.”

Rybakina, who has beaten Swiatek three times this year, is in the same half of the draw as the top-ranked Pole, with a potential semi-final showdown on the cards.

Three-time major winner Swiatek has not been as dominant as last year, with Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka having gradually closed the gap, but she has won 19 of her last 20 matches at Roland Garros and 41 of 45 on clay overall.

Swiatek kept her title defence on track after dismissing her latest challenger, American Claire Liu, a day after her 22nd birthday and faces another unseeded opponent, Wang Xinyu of China, on Saturday for a place in the last 16.

Seventh seed Ons Jabeur will meet Olga Danilovic of Serbia while there is also a fascinating teenage battle between last year’s finalist Coco Gauff, seeded sixth, and 16-year-old Russian Mirra Andreeva.

In the men’s draw, last year’s runner-up Casper Ruud of Norway, seeded fourth, will play Zhang Zhizhen, who became the first Chinese man since 1937 to reach the third round in Paris.

American Taylor Fritz will take on Argentine Francisco Cerundolo on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, where he shushed the fans repeatedly and was booed relentlessly by the crowd on Thursday after ending the run of Arthur Rinderknech, the last Frenchman in the draw.

(Reporting by Hritika Sharma in Hyderabad; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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