Aryna Sabalenka is the last seed standing in the Last 4 in Cincinnati, as World No 7 Jessica Pegula fell to Caroline Garcia, and Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova defeated Elena Rybakina and Alja Tomljanovic respectively to reach the quarter-finals of the Western & Southern Open on Friday.
This season was really crazy for me, a lot of challenges. I'm super proud of myself that I was able to handle all these tough moments this year, and I was able to fight. Even if something didn't work, I still kept trying my best, still fighting for it. I'm super happy to be in another semi-final, and I will do my best tomorrow. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka, the 6th seed from Belarus, surged past Zhang Shuai in an hour 49 minutes, 6-4 7-6(1), to make her first hard-court semi-final since the US Open last year, beating the Chinese for a 4th time in 5 meetings, and all in straight sets.
She was made to fight back from several deficits on Friday, winning the first set from 3-4 down, and also finding herself a break down, 4 times, in the second.
In the latter stages, though, Sabalenka found her best tennis when Zhang served for the second set at 5-4, and broke her to love, and then, after the Chinese won the first point of the breaker, the Belarusian pocketed 7 straight points in a row to snatch the match.
Sabalenka also had saved 2 break points at 5-5, holding serve from 15-40 behind.
“It was a tough match and she played unbelievable tennis,” Sabalenka said after her win. “I’m super happy that, even if my serve didn’t work well today in the second set, I was able to stay focused in return games.
“I did everything I could to stay focused in return games!”
In a high-quality contest off the ground, Sabalenka struck 43 winners to 31 unforced errors, while Zhang totalled 15 winners to just 7 miscues but ultimately was unable to withstand the barrage.
Having struggled with her serve since the WTA Finals last year, Sabalenka has brought on a biomechanics specialist to help address her motion.
“This season was really crazy for me, a lot of challenges,” Sabalenka admitted. “I’m super proud of myself that I was able to handle all these tough moments this year, and I was able to fight.
“Even if something didn’t work, I still kept trying my best, still fighting for it.
“I’m super happy to be in another semi-final, and I will do my best tomorrow.”
Sabalenka is bidding for her 3rd final of the season, after finishing as the runner-up to Iga Swiatek at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, indoors on clay, and to Veronika Kudermetova at the Libema Open on grass.
To get there, Sabalenka will have to pass the hottest player in the draw, Garcia from France, who was a 6-1 7-5 winner over American No 1 Pegula in the nightcap match.
Ranked 35, Garcia had to come through qualifying to earn her main draw berth, and has proven impossible to stop in Cincy, becoming the first qualifier to make the semi-finals of the event since Akgul Amanmuradova in 2007.
After coming through in 3 sets against compatriot Diane Parry and then Germany’s Andrea Petkovic in qualifying, Garcia defeated two Top 10 opponents in Maria Sakkari, the World No 3 from Greece, and now 7th-seeded Pegula.
She is delighted with her recent form, but says performing consistently at the highest level is not easy.
“Yeah, it’s always a mixed feeling, I will say, because when you do bad, people forget about yourself pretty fast, and forget about what you did in the past,” said Garcia, the reigning French Open doubles champion, who has been ranked as high as No 4 in her career.
“As soon as you can get a couple of wins in a row under your belt and playing better tennis, it’s like you are a top star again, you know. Like you go from a loser to maybe one of the best players right now.
“Obviously, I guess, the experience from the past is going to help me to manage, and to make the good decision, and keep the good mindset, to keep it going.”
Garcia, who has won 2 titles this season, added that playing the qualifiers was challenging but the extra match-play has given her a confidence boost for the rest of the season.
“Quallies are not easy,” she said. “I had to play a lot of matches.
“It’s good for me, because it give me confidence, that the hard work we are doing is paying off, because I managed to go on court every time as easily as I can, and with good feeling in my legs.”
Garcia has been broken just 3 times in her 4 main draw matches, winning a tournament-best 93.5% of her service games.
Pegula, meanwhile, has opened up on her wealthy background as a member of one of the richest families in the United States, with her father Terry owning NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and worth an estimated $5.7 billion.
“No, I just mean, like, with my family and stuff, you know, I know I was more privileged than other people, and I’m aware of that,” the 28-year old said. “I try to be very down-to-earth, and I think I am.
“Yeah, I know that’s, maybe, not the story people gravitate towards, right? They may think it’s interesting. I know some people do, but, yeah, I’m aware of that, and I know that.
“I also think I have a lot of people’s respect as well. I think it’s kind of known, at least on tour, and with players that, yeah, I have that respect but, again, it’s kind of under the radar. So I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me, I guess.”
The conqueror of Emma Raducanu in the Last 16, Pegula feels ‘nobody cares’ about her, unlike the British No 1, who is now preparing to defend her US Open title in New York.
After her 7-5 6-4 win over the 19-year-old, Pegula said: “I feel like a lot of people don’t know me, or don’t care that I’m the No 1-ranked American. ‘Oh, whatever… she’s kind of boring’. But I kind of like it that way, as well.”
She is happy with her journey and compared it to Raducanu’s break-out US Open win.
“Listen, I know I’m not 18 and a phenom, and I know that I haven’t actually won any big titles yet — but I just think my journey was a lot different,” Pegula said. “I hope it inspires people to know that, even if maybe you are a little older, maybe, people, kind of, think you missed your window, or you are not really going to improve, that you can always improve and you can always get better.”
In the top half of the draw, another American, Keys, prevailed over the reigning Wimbledon champion, Rybakina, 6-3 6-4, in an hour and 31 minutes.
“I knew she is a remarkable player, and she can turn it around at any moment, so I knew I had to try to stay out in front because, at any moment, she can go on a roll,” said Keys. “I think that is kind of the key against her.
“If you back off at all, then she gets to dictate and run you around.”
Keys won the biggest title of her career in Cincinnati in 2019, and this result took her overall record at the tournament to 17-7, or 71%, which is her best at WTA 1000 events.
Against Rybakina, Keys struck 21 winners, to only 11 for the Kazakh, while her return of serve was particularly potent, and she punished her opponent’s second delivery at every given chance.
Having gone down 2-0 in the second set after a spate of errors, Keys raised her game and scored a clean return winner to seal an immediate break-back before starting a 5-game run that stopped Rybakina’s surge and took the American to the brink of victory at 5-2.
While the Kazakh’s second serve was vulnerable, Rybakina dropped only 8 points behind her first delivery, and this was largely responsible for keeping the scoreline as close as it was, but it came too little and a little too late, and 25 unforced errors, compared to 16 for Keys, proved her eventual downfall.
Keys will next face another big-hitter in the left-handed Czech, Kvitova, in the semi-finals, who earlier booked her spot with a 6-2 6-3 win over Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic.
Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, fired 29 winners to Tomljanovic’s 7 in the 1-hour and 13-minute contest.
Having saved a match point in her 1st-round win over last year’s finalist Jil Teichmann from Switzerland, Kvitova now moves into the Cincy semi-finals for a 3rd time, although she has yet to reach the final at this tournament.
Keys and Kvitova’s head-to-head is deadlocked at 4-4, with their most recent meeting coming in the 1st-round here in Cincy last year, where the Czech prevailed in straight sets.
“We played first round last year here, so I think this is much, much better to play in the semis,” Kvitova said. “I think she’s really on fire.
“I love how Madison is playing. I think that she is one of the, like, game playing, like one of the best.
“I think she is really playing very beautiful. It’s nice to see her in the semis, for sure.
“Unfortunately I’m playing her, but we will see tomorrow,” Kvitova said with a smile.
Keys and Kvitova are two of the biggest hitters in the game.
“She is a big hitter, but even from the forehand she can go a little bit different style sometimes, that she can put it a little bit upper with more topspin,” Kvitova said. “She is moving very well.
“And especially the serve, she has a lot of variety of the serve. She can go for ace, she can have a kick, she has beautiful technique of the serve.
“Definitely she has more kinds of this stuff. Not like me, I don’t have nothing, I’m just boom-boom.”
Selling herself short, Kvitova has efficiently blasted her way past Teichmann, Sorana Cirstea, Ons Jabeur, and Tomljanovic to make her first WTA 1000 semi-final in two years.
The challenge for Kvitova now will be physical, as fatigue sets in following her string of wins this week.
As for Keys, who is now producing the form that got her to the final of the US Open in 2017, she said: “I have obviously had some battles against Petra. Won some, lost some.
“It’s never easy to play her, especially later in a draw, meaning that she’s playing some very good tennis.”