Daria Saville, a WTA Tour veteran of more than a decade, knew to set realistic expectations for what she thought would be an arduous climb back from Achilles’ surgery that caused her to miss almost all of the 2021 season. Give it a year of steady work, stay patient, and maybe she could claw back into the top 100 by December.
Instead, 2022 has turned out to be a sweet surprise on court. A former top-20 player, Saville fell to No. 627 in early February before she took off on a tear that has her ranked 88th and into the semifinals of the Citi Open — her first semifinal berth in a tournament this year. It’s a season she has spent balancing playing impressive tennis with using her platform to speak out against the war in Ukraine.
Saville, a Russian native who emigrated and has competed for Australia since 2015, defeated Canada’s Rebecca Marino, 6-1, 7-5, a win that required impressive regrouping after Marino emerged from a weather delay stronger in the second set.
“When I went off court, my coach said: ‘Okay, what do you think you’re doing well? Aside from everything,’ ” Saville said, smiling.
Her strategy after the delay was to compete as if the match were starting anew.
Saville, who will face 37-year-old Kaia Kanepi in the semifinals, was making her third appearance in a quarterfinal this year. Although she isn’t sporting Ukraine’s colors in Washington, she has played some of her best tennis of the season, including at the BNP Paribas Open in March, clad in blue and yellow as a show of support.
Saville, who competed under her maiden name, Gavrilova, until her marriage in 2021, first tweeted a plea for Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine in February. The 28-year-old has since said she wouldn’t feel safe returning to her native land, a calculus countless well-known Russian athletes have had to consider since the war began.
💙💛 @Daria_gav adopted 🇦🇺 colours long ago, but has donned those of 🇺🇦 during a recent rankings rise (627 ▶️ 129)— CodeSports (@codesportsau) April 7, 2022
Dasha has been unwavering in her #UkraineSupport - privately to players & publicly on social media.#StandWithUkraine Story: https://t.co/dTSvWeCGm8 @LindaCPearce pic.twitter.com/ln0GiYHxxI
Even so, her outspokenness was not so surprising given the personality she puts online. Saville is an unabashed tennis fan on Twitter, cooing over players’ pregnancy announcements, cheering her tour-mates and selling tote bags that feature her Dachshund, Tofu, on them. (Sometimes Tofu is drawn as a shrimp. Or a croissant.) She says she earned a wild card into Wimbledon this year by pestering the tournament over email.
She has needed no such help in Washington, where she took out defending champion Jessica Pegula to advance to the quarterfinals and will battle Kanepi on Saturday for a shot at her second career singles title, a few months ahead of schedule.
“I did not really have expectations, but if someone told me, ‘Hey you’re going to be ranked inside the top 100 in six months,’ I would definitely take it,’” Saville said. “I’m really proud of myself.”
Tiafoe on cusp
As the best run of his career at the Citi Open stretches on, Frances Tiafoe has an issue. He keeps breaking promises to his agent.
“I had like 56 tickets coming today. I keep telling my agent, ‘Yeah, this is the last one, last one.’ Someone comes out of the woodwork,” he said.
Friends’ and family members’ requests for tickets are among the handful of not-so-problematic problems Tiafoe faces when he plays in Washington, in front of the closest thing he has to a home crowd on the ATP Tour. Pressure to represent the region well is another. On Friday, the Maryland native deftly handled both as he defeated No. 8 seed Botic van de Zandschulp, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, in a match spread across two days because of a weather delay.
It is his first berth into the Citi Open quarterfinals in his sixth appearance at the tournament. Tiafoe made his first main draw appearance in an ATP Tour event here as a 16-year-old wild card in 2014.
“Playing here in D.C., honestly, it could be if it was a 250[-level tournament] or whatever. … I mean, to win this tournament would mean the world to me,” Tiafoe said this week. “I have been coming to this tournament since I was 4 years old. To have my name around the stadium would mean a lot to me.”
Tiafoe’s sharp play in Washington, which he punctuated Friday with his usual roars and appeals to a crowd hollering its support for “Big Foe,” follows a semifinal appearance in Atlanta last week and a fourth-round loss at Wimbledon as he gains momentum heading into the U.S. Open.
His next match, scheduled for late Friday night if weather permits, should be a doozy with the exact type of amped-up atmosphere he craves. Tiafoe is set to face the 2019 Citi Open champion and his doubles partner in last year’s tournament, Nick Kyrgios. The Aussie ousted Reilly Opelka, 7-6 (7-1), 6-2, in another match spread out over two days.
For that matchup, Tiafoe will most certainly need more tickets.
He was joined Friday in the quarterfinals by 22-year-old Floridian Sebastian Korda, who advanced with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 5 seed Grigor Dimitrov.
No. 1 seed Andrey Rublev will face 23-year-old Ohioan J.J. Wolf, who has shorn his famous mullet since his last Citi Open appearance but defeated ninth-seeded Holger Rune, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, nonetheless.
In the women’s draw, Kanepi was the only player to advance to the semifinals before weather delays kicked in Friday evening. The 37-year-old defeated Anna Kalinskaya, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-3.