Two-time Qatar Total Open champion Victoria Azarenka, hampered by a back problem, produced a remarkable performance to defeat top seed Elina Svitolina on Thursday, setting up a semi-final meeting with Garbiñe Muguruza, who outmatched Maria Sakkari in her quarter-final.
Sometimes, an injury can cloud your judgement; when you’re enduring pain and difficulties, you’re not focusing on what you can do to find solutions. Against Elina, it was really important for me to be aggressive. She’s a very good baseline player, and she counter-attacks a lot, so it was important not to give her opportunities to put me on the move. I think it was important for me to set that tone from the beginning today. Victoria Azarenka
Azarenka needed medical treatment during the match but her back problems did not prevent her from scoring an extraordinary 6-2 6-4 win over her doubles partner and friend in just 85 minutes.
“In the warm-up, I just felt a very sharp pain and I was very worried,” she explained in her post-match press conference. “The pain didn’t really get any better. I think I’m pretty proud with how I handled it, mentally.
“I tried my best. I really tried to just focus on what I could do, and not think about the things I couldn’t.
“I just tried to play point by point and not think about the score, how long it’s going to take to play, if it’s going to be two sets or three sets.”
The Belarusian had never lost to Svitolina in 3 prior meetings but when, in the 2nd game, she called for a medical timeout to address a clear lower back issue, and then served at half speed, it looked as though she might retire.
Svitolina appeared frozen by the prospect of overpowering her ailing friend, and struggled to find the rhythm necessary to expose Azarenka’s injury.
Following a service motion adjustment to a more rudimentary wind-up and remaining standing at the sit-downs kept Azarenka in the contest, particularly since her ground game hardly suffered as she struck 25 winners to just 20 unforced errors.
Despite drooping her serve early, Azarenka had enough zip on her returns to break Svitolina in her next 2 service games to build a 4-1 lead.
Additional treatment from the trainer followed, but Azarenka still maintained her solid form, holding serve twice more to pick up the one-set lead, having won three-quarters of points off of Svitolina’s second serve.
In fact, she broke the Ukrainian World No 5 three more times en route to a 5-2 lead in the second, but she failed to serve out the match in that game, and then could not convert 2 match points on Svitolina’s serve at 5-3.
Serving for the match for a second time at 5-4, Azarenka got it done on her 3rd match point with a backhand winner.
“Sometimes, an injury can cloud your judgement; when you’re enduring pain and difficulties, you’re not focusing on what you can do to find solutions,” Azarenka said. “Against Elina, it was really important for me to be aggressive.
“She’s a very good baseline player, and she counter-attacks a lot, so it was important not to give her opportunities to put me on the move.
“I think it was important for me to set that tone from the beginning today.”
The two-time Australian Open champion will now aim to recover in time for her first semi-final of the season, where she will play fellow former World No 1 Muguruza, who closed out quarter-final action by sweeping aside Sakkari from Greece.
“I’ll take recovery the way I took the match: one moment at a time,” Azarenka said. “I’ll try to do everything possible and check every option I have to prepare for tomorrow and make the best judgment.
“I don’t want to sit here and make any decisions; there’s no point. The most important thing is to give myself every possible option to be better.”
Muguruza avenged a loss to Sakkari in their only previous meeting, which came earlier this season in Abu Dhabi where the Greek won in straight sets
Under the lights on Thursday night, however, Muguruza needed just over an hour to break 3 times in the first set and twice in the second, winning 6-3 6-1 to reach the semi-finals for the second time in her 6 successive showings in Doha.
“Probably when I had the opportunity, I took it,” Muguruza said in her post-match press conference. “I just went for the point and converted those break points and could close the match when I had the moment for it.
“I think that’s being efficient. Sometimes you try your best and it doesn’t go your way. But today I felt like everything was going well.”
The highest-ranked unseeded player in the field this week, Muguruza converted 5 of her 12 break points and fired 14 winners, double the amount of her unforced errors.
An early break by Muguruza was nullified when Sakkari broke back to level the opening set at 3-3, but that would prove to be the only break point the Greek generated.
The Spaniard’s depth of return helped her to reclaim her break at 4-3, and the former World No 1 repeated the feat as she broke the Greek once more to take the one-set lead.
Muguruza started the second set thunderously, holding serve easily with an ace, then charged through the remainder of the match, breaking Sakkari twice more to sweep to victory.
All told, Muguruza was stupendous on serve, getting 79 percent of her first serves into play, and winning 80 percent of the points when she did so.
“I’m happy, I felt good on court,” the former Wimbledon and Roland Garros champion said after her match. “So far I’m happy to be back, trying to get closer and closer [to the final].
“Every match is hard, it’s always difficult,” added Muguruza as she looked ahead to her clash with Azarenka.
The Spaniard knocked defending champion Sabalenka out of the tournament on Wednesday in a 3-set marathon and, on Thursday, it was a deft backhand that took Muguruza, the 2018 Doha runner-up, to match point within 70 minutes.
Earlier in the day, 2018 champion Petra Kvitova navigated a 3-set thriller against Anett Kontaveit, conquering the Estonian, 6-3 3-6 6-2.
The second set threatened to derail Kvitova’s earlier momentum, with the Czech facing several service breaks.
“It was a roller-coaster, I would say,” Kvitova said after the match. “It’s tough to play Anett; we had a couple of games that were very tight, so after losing the second set, where I didn’t play my best, I was happy to start well in the third.
“It was important to get that first break In the third set.
“The return was also pretty good from my side. I was going for that from the first point, and I think that was the big difference because the rallies were 50/50; when I could put pressure on the return, it was very nice.”
Runner-up in Doha to Sabalenka last year, the No 4 seed will next face American qualifier Jessica Pegula, who upset 2017 winner Karolina Pliskova, 6-3 6-1.
Although Pegula had to fight for her place in the main draw, the 27-year-old is on an impressive run this season, knocking out Svitolina at the Australian Open en route to her first Grand Slam quarter-final.
“I took a lot from that match,” Pegula said. “I definitely was, I guess, anxious coming here because you come off such a big quarter-final, first quarter-final, a lot of big wins, and then I’m in qualifying here and I have to win three matches.”
Since the re-start, Pliskova is just 11-9 in matches, with 7 of those losses to players outside the Top 40, and one semi-final showing in 9 events, a final run in Rome which came up short to Simona Halep, and she is just 5-4 this year.
After her victory Pegula said that not dropping a single set coming out of qualifying was ‘definitely a confidence builder’.
“[In] Australia and here I have been playing really aggressive, whereas last year at the US Open I definitely wasn’t playing as aggressive,” she added.
“I actually wasn’t really feeling that confident in my game, but I was figuring out ways to win.
“I think because I’m moving so much better that I was relying a lot on my movement and my defence.”