Former top 30 Junior seeks return with upset

STARTING June last year as the world number 22 on the Junior Girls’ ITF circuit, former German now Kazakh Sonja Zhiyenbayeva, had slipped outside the top 100 this year. At that stage, she had reached a third round of the Australian Open Juniors and second round at Roland Garros – losing to 2024 Aus Open champion Renata Jamrichova both times – and won the J30 Michalowek title on grass shortly after.

However first round losses at both Roehampton (J300) and Wimbledon put an end to what looked like a promising start to a grass season. She fought her ay through to reach a quarter final at Bytom and semi-final at Repentigny in Poland and Canada respectively, a month apart and switching from grass to clay to hardcourt.

Since then though, Zhiyenbayeva had a forgettable stint, losing first round at the US Open, second round at Istanbul (J200) and then taking a break until 2024. In an unusual switch, the former German had opted to represent Kazakhstan instead from this year. Though the nationality change from Russia to Kazakhstan has become a popular one, Zhiyenbayeva followed her mother’s Kazakh heritage, with her father of course German,.

Coming to Australia brought the 17-year-old plenty of hope, but yet again the Kazakhstan talent found herself exiting both the J300 Traralgon and Australian Open without a win to her name.

She then opted to head to Cairo where she currently is fighting it out for what would be her seventh Junior title. The city holds plenty of good memories for her, winning back-to-back J2 titles there in 2022 among four trophies that year. Having won on clay (four titles), hard (one) and grass (one), Zhiyenbayeva has shown she is more than capable to switch surfaces, it is just about consistency.

Overnight, Zhiyenbayeva reached the semi-finals of the J300 tournament thanks to a victory over Ukrainian number 50, Yelyzaveta Kotliar. Many might remember Kotliar as the Ukrainian teenager who copped criticism for shaking the hand of her Russian opponent at the Australian Open Juniors, Vlada Mincheva.

Kotliar is a talented player in her own right, having won a J200 Vigo title last season to take her into the top 100. However in Cairo, Zhiyenbayeva proved too strong, fighting past a tough opening set tiebreak to win 7-6 6-2 on the clay. Boasting a 56-22 career win-loss record on clay, Zhiyenbayeva has done well to continue her ascent up the rankings.

However her best win came in the quarter finals, where she took down Czech top seed and Junior world number 11, Alena Kovackova. Already a promising doubles player having won Junior Wimbledon last year alongside top five talent Laura Samsonova, Kovackova has a star-studded junior career which included winning both the Under 14 and Under 16 Player of the Year in 2022.

Still only 15, Kovackova had a breakout 2023, winning three titles and ascending into the top 10. Her 2024 season has been average thus far, with a 3-3 record across both Australia and now Egypt, but Zhiyenbayeva did well to knock her off with a 7-6 3-6 7-6 result. The Kazakhstan 17-year-old needed to go to 9-7 in the deciding tiebreak to come away with the victory.

Zhiyenbayeva is now two wins away from her first title in 2024, taking on world number 57 Malak El Allami – the first Moroccan girl to win a singles match at Wimbledon – who is in red-hot form, coming off a J200 title in Cairo just last week. El Allami has bounced back from her first round loss at Melbourne Park to win seven straight matches on the Egyptian clay and is just two wins away herself from making it back-to-back titles.

In the other semi-final is favourite and second seed, Poland’s Monika Stankiewicz. The Pole is at a career-high 27th in the world at the moment, coming off two titles last season at J200 and J300 level, and reached the semi-finals at Traralgon before going down to eventual winner, Aussie Emerson Jones. A rough first round draw at Melbourne Park saw her exit at the hands of talented Brit, Isabelle Lacy.

Stankiewicz’s semi-final opponent is 2007-born Russian, Maria Golovina, who has an eye-catching 70-26 career record at Junior level. Currently ranked 109th in the world, Golovina has already won two titles this season at Chandigarh (J100) and Kolkata (J200), though has never won on clay.

Also reaching a final in New Delhi, Golovina finished her stint in India with a massive 14-1 record and if she can salute in Cairo, would mean she moves to 19-1 for the 2024 season and entry into the top 100 for the first time.

The semi-finals take place at 10am local time which is 7pm tonight AEDST.


Sonja Zhiyenbayeva (KAZ) vs. Malak El Allami (MAR)
[2] Monika Stankiewicz (POL) vs. Maria Golovina (RUS)

Meanwhile in the boys’ top seed Maxim Mrva is red-hot favourite to take out the Cairo title, reaching the final four without dropping a set. He takes on unseeded Italian Daniele Rapagnetta, with the top 100 player unfortunately copping top 20 players Nicolai Budkova Kjaer and Hayden Jones in the first rounds at Traralgon and the Australian Open to start the year.

Morocco also has an entrant in the boys semi-finals with third seed Reda Bennani making it there. Turning 17 on Friday, a semi-final win could be the perfect present. The world number 28 locks horns with seventh seeded Serbian, Marko Maksimovic. The 18-year-old Serb is coming of an impressive straight sets win over top 20 Romanian and second seed, Luca Preda in the quarter finals.

Bennani and Maksimovic played on clay in August last year, with the former winning in the J300 Pancevo event, 7-6 7-6. Maksimovic is searching for his fifth title, while Bennani has won five though only one at J200 level, which funnily enough was at Cairo last year. An Egyptian clay specialist, Bennani has won trophies at J2, J3 and J5 level in the city.


[1] Maxim Mrva (CZE) vs. Daniele Rapagnetta (ITA)
[3] Reda Bennani (MAR) vs. Marko Maksimovic (SRB)

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