It was billed to be a thriller and the China Open semi-final between Ashleigh Barty and Kiki Bertens lived up to the hype.
With just a couple of points separating them at the last, it was the World No 1 who came through having saved a match point in the third set tiebreak.
I remember from the Miami match, it was very similar. There were periods of that match where she went into complete lockdown. I had to fight and try to find a way through Ashleigh Barty
In many ways, order was maintained but the 8th-seeded Bertens showed what a fighter she is and she almost pulled off a major upset.
Instead Barty will contest her second Premier Mandatory final of the season on Sunday, after seeing off the Dutchwoman in a dramatic 6-3 3-6 7-6(7) contest on Saturday afternoon.
Barty extended her mastery over Bertens to 5-0 with the victory, having won the 4th three-setter in the pair’s overall head-to-head to advance to her 5th championship match of this season.
The Australian roared out of the blocks winning the first 3 games in an astonishing 7 minutes during which she did not drop a single point, winning all 8 of the points played.
In fact, she won 12 of the first 14 points and was dominant from the outset, looking to overwhelm the No 8 seed, and yet a good 2 hours later Barty was ultimately one point away from defeat in the final set.
The 23-year-old looked all set to rush into Sunday’s final, and controlling the first set against a shell-shocked Bertens.
She never relinquished her lead in the opener, but needed 6 set points to ultimately come through the set.
How Bertens turned things around was a lesson in itself, watching the 27-year-old Dutchwoman strike back to win the second set by the same 6-3 scoreline and take the match to a decider.
“I think, particularly, probably from middle of the first set right through until I probably broke early in the third, Kiki went into lockdown mode,” Barty assessed.
“She didn’t give me very many cheapies as well. She does that extremely well.
“I remember from the Miami match, it was very similar. There were periods of that match where she went into complete lockdown. I had to fight and try to find a way through.”
Bertens got off to a quick start in the second set, winning 8 of the first 10 points en route to opening up her own 3-0 lead, and largely cruised on serve from then on, never facing a break point and losing just 8 points in 5 service games, to tie the match at a set apiece for the 4th time in their 5 career meetings.
Bertens’ momentum continued into the final set as she was the first to break, and the Dutchwoman broke again at 2-2 to move ahead after profiting from a Barty error.
Bertens though lost her nerve when serving for the match, the momentum swinging back in Barty’s favour.
Barty went down 3-1 in the tiebreak, but overcame the deficit to seal the victory.
After breaking in that key 5th game, Bertens rose to the challenge in her next 2 service games, holding from 0-30 on each occasion to put herself a game away from her second Premier Mandatory final of the season.
After digging out of 15-40 hole to deuce and putting herself 2 points away from championship Sunday, the Dutch No 1 dropped serve, burying a drop-shot attempt in the net on the 3rd break point of the game to give Barty a second life.
“I thought the quality was exceptional from both of us at times. Win or lose, you come off feeling pretty good about it.
Obviously it sucks there’s only one winner.
“But pretty happy with the way I was able to fight and dig in late in that third, as well.”
When Barty dumped a slice backhand into the net to hand Bertens a 4-3, 30-0 lead, it was the Australian’s 22nd unforced error of the set – almost as many as she committed in the first two sets combined.
Yet still the World No 1 would not surrender.
“I think a lot of it comes down to trusting myself, knowing that once I make a decision with the balls, to trust it and go after it. And don’t play in a way where I’m fearing what could happen,” Barty said.
“I think early in the third, my first service game, I missed 3 forehands, all the right misses, if there is such a thing. It was doing the right thing. It was just execution.
“My back was against the wall late in the third [and] I came up with some really good stuff.”
The Aussie had to come from 3-5 down in the decider, and later, from 0-30, held herself for 6-5, her first lead of the final set since 2-1, to set the stage for the winner-take-all finale.
It was nip and tuck, with each player testing the other until ultimately, only the breaker could separate them.
Barty earned a match point with a forehand winner for a 6-5 lead, only for Bertens to save it with a forehand winner of her own.
This was gritty, tense, compelling tennis.
Bertens moved ahead 7-6 to score her own match point, but Barty hung tough, winning the final 3 points of the match to end a memorable contest.
The World No 1 had stared down the barrel and come through unscathed into the China Open final.
Title-holder Wozniacki and reigning Australian Open champion Osaka play their semi-final later Saturday.
“It’s just been really nice to be able to play, like, 2 matches the last 2 days [at an] incredible level,” Barty said.
“Regardless if I was on a plane home today, I probably wouldn’t have stressed any more or less about it.
“It’s just been a really, really good level the last 2 days.”