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Friendship cast aside as Sabalenka crushes pal Badosa

"It's tough to play your best friend," sighed Aryna Sabaenka - but it didn't look that way for long as she swept aside Paula Badosa to march into the last-16 of the French Open on another rain-hit day at Roland Garros.

As the drizzle continued to wreak havoc with the programme outdoors on Saturday, the No.2 seed dispatched her pal to march into the fourth round on the covered Court Philippe Chatrier straight after fourth seed Elena Rybakina also eased through with a 6-4 6-2 win over Elise Mertens.

Australian Open champ Sabalenka, who's been great friends with former world No.2 Badosa for five years, didn't find it easy to subdue the Spaniard in the early stages as they swapped seven service breaks before the Belarusian finally prevailed.

But after that, it was plain sailing for Sabalenka as she dropped just one more game before wrapping up victory in just over an hour-and-a-quarter and giving a warm embrace to Badosa at the net.

Rybakina
Elena Rybakina en route to knocking out Elise Mertens in the French Open. (AP PHOTO)

"She's an incredible player coming back after injury and I'm pretty sure she's going to be back on top very soon," said Sabalenka, saluting the 26-year-old American-born Badosa, who's battling back after a stress fracture in her back ruined her 2023 campaign.

"On court we're opponents, I'm trying not to watch on the other side, just trying to focus on myself and just bring my best game, but, anyway, they're tough matches against her."

The 26-year-old Sabalenka is delighted with her form, and suggested afterwards that she has plenty of weapons to thrive on her quest to win the second leg of a potential grand slam.

"Some days it's actually getting more complicated to play," she said, referring to the variety in her game these days.

"You have so many options, you're thinking too much, but today was a day when I wasn't thinking that much, I was just feeling the game and I trusting myself and just going for all the shots."

No woman has claimed the Australian Open and Roland Garros titles in the same season since Serena Williams in 2015.

Earlier, 2022 Wimbledon champ Rybakina defeated the tough Belgian Mertens with some aplomb, revealing that she is feeling better than when she pulled out of the Italian Open last month with illness.

"I've been struggling a bit with sleep, some issues," she said. "So, of course, I had to skip tournaments. Also allergies and everything. Now I'm feeling pretty well and focused."

Story of the day for the home fans was the progress of world No.88 Varvara Gracheva, the Russian who has now thrown in her lot with France, as she beat Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu 7-5 6-3 to prompt a chorus of 'La Marseillaise' to ring around Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Varvara Gracheva
Varvara Gracheva was quite emotional as she joined in La Marseillaise (AP PHOTO)

As the last home-based player left in the women's draw, Gracheva, who got her French passport last year, seemed quite emotional about it all, even joining in herself.

"I will remember this moment until the end of my life," she said. "It means that everyone accepts me, that I'm home here."