Once again, World No 1 Ash Barty came from behind to beat Elina Svitolina to reach the final of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in celebration of her 25th birthday, where she will meet Aryna Sabalenka, who dismantled Simona Halep in her semi-final on Saturday.
That’s what I love to do. I love to play tennis. I love to compete, and to do it on my birthday is even more special. Ash Barty
Barty had to fight her way back from another brink to survive in Stuttgart, pushed to the limits by Svitolina but coming through, 4-6 7-6(5) 6-2, to enjoy a little on-court birthday celebration involving flowers and a turn of Happy Birthday.
Up a set, Svitolina had served for the match in the second at 5-4, but she couldn’t close the door, and she also went up a break in the tiebreak for 4-2 before Barty won 5 of the next 6 point to force a decider.
The Australian top seed secured service breaks in the 3rd and 7th games to wrestle control of the third, sealing her victory in just under 2 hours.
It was Barty’s 3rd straight win over Svitolina, the most recent coming in straight sets in the Miami semi-finals, after suffering 3 losses to the Ukrainian early in her career.
“I think you learn from every single match regardless of who the opponent is, but I think the Top 10 players and particularly the WTA Top 10 have, in the last five or six years, been exceptional quality,” said Barty. “I think you have to bring your best to be able to compete.
“You know when it forces some of your best tennis out of you. So, it’s nice, in the critical moments, to come up with some pretty good stuff yesterday [against Karolina Pliskova] and today again. But obviously you enjoy the challenge of playing against the world’s best as well.”
Barty finished off the match with 36 winners, 10 more than her unforced error count of 26, while Svitolina scored slightly more miscues, 33 in total, and was denied her first win over a current World No 1 since she defeated Halep at Rome in 2018.
A number of routine holds started the opening frame before Svitolina’s penetrating shots drew errors from Barty at 3-3, giving the Ukrainian a critical break.
With solid serving backing up her groundstroke play, Svitolina eased to the one-set lead without facing a break point.
Barty’s powerful play kicked into gear in the second, as she became more effective at the net and big hitting earned her an an early break, which she extended to a 4-1 lead.
A winning drop-shot by Svitolina, however, allowed the Ukrainian a break back for 4-3, during a stretch where the No 4 seed reeled off 12 out of 13 points.
At 5-4, Svitolina was unable to serve out the match at 5-4 and was broken again as they moved into a 2nd-set tiebreak.
Down 2-4 in the breaker, Barty varied her winners, including drop-shots, volleys, and fierce forehands, and ran to double set point at 6-4, and while Svitolina saved one with an ace, an error-forcing backhand at net by the Aussie allowed her to eke out the set.
“I think in the first set [Svitolina] served exceptionally well, and it was important for me to try and find a way to get into her service games,” Barty said. “There were ebbs and flows throughout that second set.
“It was just important to me to try and stick with it, still continue to try and do the right things and put myself in a position where I felt I could win the match.
“From being 4-2 down, I felt I was a little bit more aggressive, I was able to come in on a few of those points, which was important to take time away coming into the net.”
Barty wrestled control for good at 1-1 in the final set, where a back-and-forth game finally went the top seed’s way as she found the sideline to force an error from Svitolina on her 6th break point.
From there she eased home to notch up a memorable birthday victory.
Making her tournament debut at the Porsche Grand Prix, Barty is aiming to become the first World No 1 to win the Stuttgart title since Justine Henin in 2007 and, in the final on Sunday, she will face No 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who knocked off No 2 seed Simona Halep of Romania in straight sets.
Sabalenka pulled off a remarkable upset of World No 3 Halep, 6-3 6-2, in the second semi-final on Saturday, saving all 3 break points she faced and converting 3 of her own 9 chances to win in just over an hour.
Halep’s hopes for a first Stuttgart final were dashed by the Belarusian, who effectively overwhelmed the Romanian for one of her best wins on clay.
“I think for now, I’m playing pretty well on the clay court,” Sabalenka said. “There is still something else to learn and something else to improve.
“Of course, the last two matches I won, it’s – wow – that’s crazy. That’s saying a lot. I’m on the right way and it’s going to bring me a few more steps.”
For Halep, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, clay is usually an effective field-leveller against the power players but, on this occasion, her game was dismantled by the World No 7 Sabalenka, the youngest of the four Top-10 semi-finalists at 22.
Halep has yet to make a tour final since Rome last September.
“When everything goes right for her it’s really tough to return the ball, long and deep, to give her a little bit of a problem,” Halep said. “She overpowered me today.
“She played great. It’s always tough when a player plays like that.”
Sabalenka only had 5 hours of sleep after her late, 3-set win over Anett Kontaveit in the quarter-finals and was on an infectious high, laughing at herself over her success.
“Yeah, definitely was a good match for myself,” Sabalenka said on court. “I wasn’t surprised. I was preparing myself for this kind of game.”
Sabalenka dominated Halep in every respect, winning 38 of her 50 service points and striking 28 winners, against 21 unforced errors, while the Romanian had only 12 winners alongside 17 unforced errors.
“It was not easy, actually, because you have to [be] really focused against Simona,” Sabalenka said. “I think, yeah, this is a great clay court for my game.
“Really happy with the final, looking forward to tomorrow’s match.”
Sabalenka is now 18-5 in matches for this season, and has a 9-4 record in previous finals.
Later she told the media: “For winning, I just have to stay really calm, and this is the big difference, because usually when I’m losing it’s because I’m getting frustrated about everything and my mind is not on the game.
“When I’m staying calm and thinking about the right things, for example, about the game and what I should do, then it helps me to win.”
Sabalenka meets Barty in the final, and the two have split 6 prior meetings, with the Aussie winning last month in the Miami quarter-finals.
Looking forward to the final, Barty observed of Sabalenka that she has ‘a lot of the time, the ball’s in her court, really’.
“She’s got exceptional power,” Barty said. “She’s able to control the ball from first strike off the serve or, alternatively, off the return as well. We’ve had some brilliant matches.
“The challenge for me is to try and get into as many points as I can and try and in a way bring in some variety.
“Ultimately, all the time, it’s not going to be completely in my control and I just have to accept that.”
On Saturday Barty continued her birthday celebrations by playing 3 sets of singles, and then 2 more sets with doubles partner Jennifer Brady as they defeated Vivian Heisen & Wang Yafan, 6-1 7-5, and will meet Desirae Krawczyk & Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles final that will follow the singles on Sunday.
When asked if it was too much tennis, Barty responded with a smile: “That’s what I love to do. I love to play tennis. I love to compete, and to do it on my birthday is even more special.”
Sabalenka didn’t think 5 sets of tennis would slow the Aussie down any.
“I think she have enough power, so she will be there tomorrow, 100%,” Sabalenka said. “So, yeah, I’m looking forward to this final and I will do everything I can.”
Like Barty, Sabalenka has a forceful, athletic game that seems made for hard courts and grass, and she admits that, sometimes, patience is not one of her leading virtues.
Stuttgart is only her 2nd clay court final of her career, having lost to Elise Mertens 3 years ago in Lugano, Switzerland.
Against Barty on Sunday, she will need all her power and a heavy dose of patience, too.