Dubai | Swiatek sprints into Last 4, but Rybakina, Gauff and Vondrousova all bow out

Few would have predicted the semi-final line up at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, other than Iga Swiatek, of course, who has sprinted through the draw without loss of a set, but Thursday saw sensational upset wins by Anna Kalinskaya, Coco Gauff’s vanquisher, and Sorana Cirstea, who came from a set and 1-5 down to dispatch Market Vondrousova, while Elena Rybakina pulled out citing a stomach illness after voicing concerns over physical exhaustion and sending Jasmine Paolini into the Last 4.

Honestly, I’m not thinking of winning the title because I try to do everything step by step. All these players in the tournament are really great; any of us can win. I just try to stay humble and focus only on the next step. If, by any chance, I’m going to win the tournament, it’s just an effect of that. No point in over-analysing! Iga Świątek

Swiatek, the World No 1, faced Zheng Qinwen, the 6th seed who has taken sets off her on 3 separate occasions but trailed 5-0 in their head-to-head record, and the 22-year old Pole knows she has to take the  21-year old Chinese No 1 seriously.

“Zheng has great power, great topspin,” she said. “You have to be ready for that. She wants to really be proactive, so you have to keep up with the intensity. I have been doing that during our matches.”

It took the top seed 86 minutes to maintain her dominance over Zheng, 6-3 6-2, and move into the semi-finals of the WTA 1000 event for the second time this year after winning Doha last week, and she extends her winning streak in the Middle East to 7 consecutive matches.

Swiatek won the first 3 games of the match, saving a break point at 2-0, and denied Zheng the chance to get out in front early in the second set by saving another break point in the 3rd game that would have given the World No 7 a 3-1 lead, and then sprinted to the finish line from there by taking the last 4 games.

The top seed saved all 3 break points she faced in the match, and broke Zheng’s serve 3 times, finishing with 17 winners to 10 unforced errors, while her opponent struck 19 winners to her 18 miscues, but landed just 48% of her first serves.

“I’m happy that I played well, stuck to my tactics, was pretty solid,” said Swiatek, who was a finalist in Dubai 12 months ago. “For sure I feel better and better every day here.

“Honestly, I’m not thinking of winning the title because I try to do everything step by step. All these players in the tournament are really great; any of us can win.

“I just try to stay humble and focus only on the next step. If, by any chance, I’m going to win the tournament, it’s just an effect of that. No point in over-analysing!”

Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya upset 3rd-seeded Coco Gauff in their quarter-final and will face Iga Swiatek for a spot in the Dubai final on Friday

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Swiatek advances to a semi-final meeting with qualifier Anna Kalinskaya from Russia, who upset Coco Gauff, the World No 3, 2-6 6-4 6-2, in a surprise turn-around encounter.

The qualifier impressively shook off an early back issue concern to rally past the 19-year old American after 2 hours and 17 minutes, achieving her best result at a WTA 1000 event.

“I’m super happy to be in the semis for the first time in my career at such a big level,” 25-year old Kalinskaya said later. “The match was great. I think the quality was pretty good.“

The World No 40 isn’t a typical qualifier, though, having advanced to her first Grand Slam quarter-final at last month’s Australian Open, and coming off a 7-5 6-4 upset over 9th seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia.

Kalinskaya dropped her serve 3 times in the opening set, but, after having her back treated for a second time during the break, she found her footing.

While they traded 3 breaks when play resumed, Kalinskaya did not fall behind in the second, and forced the decider after serving it out on her second opportunity, before racing out to a 5-1 lead by continuing to attack the American’s second serve.

Significantly, Kalinskaya won 69% percent of those points

“I didn’t feel the rhythm in the first set, because center court was a bit slower,” she said. “In the second set, I got more confidence with the timing of her shots. I guess that was the key.

“I’m feeling good, definitely a little bit sore. I’m gonna get some treatment.”

Coco Gauff, the World No 3, lost control of the match against Anna Kalinskaya, and lost in 3 sets on Thursday

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Gauff had looked well in control of the match, breaking Kalinskaya 3 times in the 46-minute opening set but she failed to hold serve her first 2 service games of the second to hand the Russian a 2-1 lead.

In fact, the young American struggled to hold serve throughout the match, and her woes mounted in the final set as she finished the match with 8 double-faults to just 3 aces, and only won 31% of her second serve points in the face of Kalinskaya’s solid baseline offence.

“It was a difficult match. I started, a little bit, not so confident,” Kalinskaya told reporters. “I was getting used to the surface. I didn’t get the chance to play on center court [before]. I felt the speed of the bounce was a bit different. I couldn’t find my timing.

“In the second set, I actually calmed down a little bit more, and I played point by point till the end of the match. I could feel the tension, like I said on court, till the last point. She kept bringing so many balls back, so I have to stay really patient and decide which ball to go and finish the point.”

Kalinskaya has not played Swiatek in singles, but she recalls playing against the not-yet No 1 in doubles.

“I think it was more than five years ago on clay,” Kalinskaya said. “When I saw her, playing against her, I was like, ‘she’s really good!’. She was making really great decisions in the doubles match.

“I’m not surprised she’s No 1 because I can see, already, mentally, she’s super strong and, physically, she’s super fit.

“I need to be ready for tomorrow and see what I can do. But definitely excited to play against her in singles.”

Kalinskaya will need to halt Swiatek’s 7-match winning streak if she is to clinch a 7th victory in 8 days, as the World No 1 already has dispatched Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina and Zheng in straight sets during her progress to the Last 4 here, and is looking to add to her trophy cabinet.

Jasmine Paolini received a free pass into the semi-finals when Elena Rybakina, the World No 4, pulled out due to illness in Dubai

© Christopher Pike/Getty Images

Earlier in the day, Elena Rybakina, the World No 4 from Kazakhstan pulled out of her quarter-final match against Italy’s Jasmine Paolini after being diagnosed with gastrointestinal issues, disrupting her chance of a 4th semi-final appearance in the 2024 season.

Following her round of 16 win against Magdalena Frech, the Kazakh revealed the physical strain she has faced due to such a busy schedule.

“It’s just the beginning of the year,” Rybakina said in her on-court interview. “Of course, it’s a great start, but it’s not easy. Most important is to stay healthy. With every match, it’s getting tougher and tougher physically but really happy with the start of the year, hopefully, I just can continue like this,”

Paolini, ranked 26 in the world, will face Sorana Cirstea, the No 22, for a place in Saturday’s final.

33-year old Sorana Cirstea pulled off the come-back of the year to upset reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in 3 sets on Thursday

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Cirstea turned the tables on 7th-seed Marketa Vondrousova, coming from 6-2, 5-1 down to defeat the reigning Wimbledon champion, 2-6 7-6(1) 6-2, saving 6 match points along the way.

It was the Romanian’s second Top 10 win of 2024, and, as a result, the 33-year old advances to her 3rd career WTA 1000 semi-final.

Cirstea had won her 2 most recent matches with Vondrousova, but the seasoned Romanian, who has been on tour for some 18 years, admitted she that she had thought she was going to lose badly.

“This has to be the biggest come-back of my career,” Cirstea said. “To be honest, at a set and 5-1, I wasn’t really thinking about winning anymore.

“I was, like, make it nicer for the public, try to make it a little bit longer, try to give them a little bit of nicer tennis. I still don’t know how I managed it!”

She started swinging freely while Vondrousova, who had been slicing and dicing to perfection, preventing Cirstea from settling into her game, gradually grew more passive and ran out of ideas.

Cirstea saved 2 match points with aces at 1-5 down, then, at 5-2, she saved another with a drive volley as she took control of the middle of the court.

Two more match points were denied at 5-3 on serve, and when Vondrousova served for the match for a third time at 6-5, Cirstea wrong-footed the Czech player to erase the 6th match point.

Cirstea had ridden the momentum through the tiebreak and the decider as Vondrousova deflated, after 2 hours and 41 minutes.

The unexpected semi-final line-up on Friday, therefore, now sees Swiatek, the only seed left, playing 40th-ranked Kalinskaya, while 22nd-ranked Cirstea faces 26th-ranked Paolini to determine who will contest the trophy match on Saturday in Dubai.



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