The highly anticipated final between the No 1 and 2 in the world will have to wait at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, as both Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka were sent packing in their semi-final matches by Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova respectively on Saturday, in two thrilling encounters.
I was just saying, ‘I’m Coco Gauff and I can do it’. Playing her, you have to give it your all, and I felt it from the moment I stepped onto the court, that I wasn’t going to lose this match today, even when the moments got tough. Coco Gauff
Swiatek was the first to go down, losing to Gauff, 7-6(2) 3-6 6-4, in 2 hours and 50 minutes, while Muchova followed, fighting back to take out Sabalenka, 6-7(4) 6-3 6-2, after 2 hours 37 minutes.
Gauff has a new mind set these days, instilled by her new team, which now includes consultant Brad Gilbert, that, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.
The 19-year old American had lost 7 times on the trot to Swiatek, including at last year’s French Open final, but, on this occasion, all the hard work finally paid off as she defeated the World No 1 for the first time.
Not only had she lost all those previous encounters, Gauff also had failed to take a single set off the 22-year old Pole, but, on Saturday she turned the table, held her nerve, and reached her maiden WTA 1000 final.
“I knew playing her was going to be tough,” Gauff said after the match. “I really took my opportunities when I got them, and I really just fought every point.
“I was a little bit negative in the second, but I got it back, and I was telling myself, ‘You’re a warrior and you can do this’.”
When Swiatek broke in game 6 of the opening set, though, there must have been a sense of deja vu, but Gauff struck back immediately, only for the top seed to break her again, although the teenager got herself back on terms once more, and then dominated the tiebreak.
Swiatek grabbed the momentum in the second, breaking early and never relinquishing her advantage, and another break to love took the match into a decider.
Both were solid on serve, and the break eventually, when it came, went the American’s way as she edged ahead in the 7th game, and although Swiatek held a break point in the next, Gauff held firm.
Swiatek saved 2 match points and conjured up another break point, but Gauff held firm yet again before finally sealing her first win over the Pole on her 4th match point.
“I tried to serve as hard as I could on the match points,” Gauff said. “She is No 1 in the world – you have to focus on your end of the court.
“I’ve been working hard and I guess it’s paying off right now. I told myself I can let this crush me or make me rise and I decided to make myself rise. It just shows I can do it.
“I was just saying, ‘I’m Coco Gauff and I can do it’. Playing her, you have to give it your all, and I felt it from the moment I stepped onto the court, that I wasn’t going to lose this match today, even when the moments got tough.”
Swiatek later praised Gauff’s performance, who has certainly elevated her game since the start of the hard court swing, winning the title in Washington DC, making the quarters of the Canadian Open and now reaching her first final of a WTA 1000 event.
“Coco, for sure, she played great tennis,” she said afterwards. “I got to check, but I think her first serve was better than most of the matches we played against each other, faster. She played more in, even though she’s risking with that speed.”
Gauff is serving big these days.
“I’ve tried my best to make as many returns as I could,” the American said. “And I think the key today was definitely my serve. I was going big on every serve.
“I told myself that, from the beginning of the match, every serve trying to hit at least 110, 115. Honestly I wanted my average to be like 118, to be honest.”
Her dominant run at Cincy this week is testimony to that, having beaten the likes of Mayar Sherif, Linda Noskova, and Jasmine Paolini in straight sets to reach the semi-finals, and now recording her first career win over Swiatek.
The Pole is fully aware that players put in extra effort against her nowadays, because of her status as the WTA’s top dog, but she says it is something she has come to terms with since she became the World No 1.
“That [being the ultimate obstacle for Gauff] I know, because they are, sometimes, honestly, saying that in interviews,” she told reporters. “That’s what I, kind of, have to accept if I’m going to be World No 1.
“At the end, we still have to go and play, so it doesn’t really matter for me what they think off court. But I’m proud that I put myself in that position, to be winning so many matches against some players. That’s all.”
Swiatek is looking forward to recharging her batteries, admitting that she has been running on fumes.
“From my perspective, I would say my tank of fuel is pretty empty,” she told reporters. “Honestly, I’m not even going to, kind of, regret a lot, because I’m happy that I’m going to have days off now.
“I thought, technically, I did everything right. I was kind of surprised that I missed couple of shots. But it happens. She really played a good match, so… It wasn’t easy,” she added.
Swiatek finished the match with 27 winners and 46 unforced errors, while Gauff hit 18 winners to 37 miscues while saving 10 out of 14 break points.
“[I’m most looking forward to] Broadway [before US Open],” Swiatek, the defending US Open champion, continued. “I don’t have [a New York] routine, honestly. Do you like Immersive Theater? So, last year we went and it was great. I’m going to go again. I’m not going to tell you which one,” she added with a smile.
“Besides that, for sure, like, one nice dinner and a lot of practicing. That’s going to be the routine.”
With her break-through win over Swiatek, Gauff has set up a title clash with Muchova, the French Open finalist, on Sunday, in her maiden career WTA 1000 final.
“Yeah, I’m really ready. I’m really excited. I mean any other answer is not a good answer so yeah of course I’m ready and I think I’m ready for it,” she told the Tennis Channel. “I feed off the crowd, to be honest.
“I never have problems with too much adrenaline and, I think, for me it’s always keeping the energy up. As soon as my energy drops, it goes low.
“And I think, these matches I knew the longer it went, I felt, like, I was more fit out there. I knew I could last and I still had a lot left in my tank.
“The crowd just, honestly, raised that endurance level even more and I really feel, like, I can go back out and play again,” she added.
Muchova, who famously defeated Sabalenka at the French Open, has battled injuries and hasn’t played a lot on tour since reaching the final at Roland Garros, but her skills are obvious when it comes to high level success.
The 3-set win for the Czech over Sabalenka puts Muchova, and Gauff, on the verge of their biggest win of their careers, no matter what the outcome is.
In the second semi-final, after a messy opening set, which Muchova lost in the breaker, it all went the Czech’s way.
Sabalenka powered out to 4-1, 30-0 in the first set before Muchova found her range to bring it back and lead 5-4, only to drop her serve again immediately as the Belarusian levelled at 5-5.
Muchova survived 3 set points on her own serve, but then went onto lose the tiebreak as Sabalenka kept her composure and her focus.
From there on in, though, the 26-year old Czech, who is ranked 17, came into her own and produced a true masterclass, carving up the game of her opponent.
Sabalenka had vowed to learn from the mistakes of her last mauling at the hands of Muchova, but she received another brutal lesson.
The Czech changed her tactics over the next two sets, standing in closer to the baseline, defending superbly and rushing the net to take time away from the increasingly frustrated Belarusian, who produced 10 double-faults.
After the opener, Muchova was unthreatened on her serve, and she sealed timely breaks at 5-3 in the second to go on to hold to love and pocket the set.
She claimed a double break in the decider, which she again saw out on her own serve, converting her first match point at 40-15 up.
“Similar to what we played few months back in Paris I would say … it could go both ways,” Muchova said afterwards. “It was just pure fight. I’m glad that I got through. Yeah, to be in my first 1000 final, it’s great achievement, and I’m really pleased with that.”
As a result Muchova is projected to rise into the Top 10 of the WTA rankings for the first time, no matter her result against Gauff.
“I think I was even outside of 200 end of the last year, so it’s incredible,” Muchova added. “I mean, I always was hoping, and believing, that I can be up there, but you never know.
“In the past, my health was a big issue. It always stopped me. Yeah, I’m just really, really pleased how it’s going. To be in Top 10, I can say it for rest of my life that I was Top 10 tennis player from all of the people. It’s great achievement.”
Muchova saw her ranking plummet last year as she struggled with injuries, but is now fully healthy and said she is looking forward to her first match against Gauff.
“I don’t know her well. I don’t think we even ever practiced together,” she told reporters. “I never even really followed her matches. I’ll look into that.
“I know she is a great mover. Powerful. I saw some rallies today when she played Iga. Very, very tough. Like every round here, it’s very tough. I’m looking forward to that.
“I think just the experience that I played a [Grand Slam] final is great, to have that, to know how to handle some situations. Yeah, I hope that will help me tomorrow. This is just my second final, so I’ll try to bring it on tomorrow, what I’ve learned in Paris, too. Yeah, try to maybe improve tomorrow. We’ll see.
“It’s completely different. It’s different surface, different tournament. Also I’ll just try to take it as another match and focus on that.”
After playing just 3 games over 11 minutes against her compatriot Marie Bouzkova on Friday, Muchova is the fresher, perhaps, of the two finalists, but Gauff, the 7th seed, is the clear favourite on Sunday.