Aryna Sabalenka, the 7th seed from Belarus, improved her chances of reaching the semi-finals at the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday afternoon with a 6-3 7-5 win over Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked American, while 5th-seeded Maria Sakkari from Greece upset the World No 2, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, 6-2 6-3, in the night session.
I think I just have to keep doing what I've been doing. I'm trusting myself. I'm just fearless on the court. I’m enjoying myself here. There’s no secret behind how I’m playing, it was about time to start playing good again. I’m just very happy that it’s actually happening here. Maria Sakkari
As it happened, Sakkari’s win put Sabalenka into the Last 4 for the first time, when she eliminated Jabeur from further contention.
After an impressive season for Pegula, it was a disappointing week in Texas, where she remained winless in both singles and doubles after also going down with fellow American Coco Gauff that night, leaving her 0-6 at the year-end championships.
“I keep telling myself I had such a great year, but that’s the tough thing with tennis, is you end the year really well, and then I come here and I lose all my matches,” the 28-year-old World No 3 lamented. “I mean, I don’t think I’ve lost this many matches in a short amount of time, this is like the same amount in, like, three months or something, almost?”
Pegula qualified for the WTA Finals being held here on the indoor hard-court at Dickies Arena by reaching the semi-finals in San Diego ahead of snagging her first title of the season by beating Sakkari in Guadalajara.
While accepting she underestimated the difficulty of playing singles and doubles this week, Pegula has no regrets.
“Of course I don’t regret playing both,” Pegula said. “We’re used to playing both, but obviously, this week, I think, maybe, the end of the year, it just kind of caught up, I don’t know about her [Gauff], but it caught up to me a little bit.
“I feel, like, this week was a little bit of a grind. It definitely feels like I hit a wall a little bit today, just as far as physically, mentally.”
Sabalenka, who didn’t qualify for the semi-finals in her WTA Finals debut last year in Guadalajara, finished 2-1 in the Nancy Richey group after her 4th consecutive straight-sets win over Pegula, which she completed in just 69 minutes.
“I kept telling myself just stay focused, just keep fighting,” the 24-year old Belarusian said. “It doesn’t matter, two or three sets. Just keep fighting. Just get the win, get extra points and then move on.”
Sabalenka, who improved to 4-1 against the World No 3, took charge early and benefitted from 4 double-faults from Pegula to win the opener, but the second proved a much tighter affair, as the American quickly snuffed out an early break and the Belarusian suddenly found herself struggling on serve.
Despite 7 double-faults of her own in the second set, Sabalenka managed to keep it close and broke for a 5-3 lead to pile the pressure back on Pegula, who responded by breaking back and levelled at 5-5, forcing the Belarusian to dig deep to win the last two games and polish it all off in two sets.
“It’s tough, but that’s tennis,” Pegula said. “You have one good week, and then you’re right back at it the next.
“There’s a lot of really high highs and low lows.”
The American No 1 will play the Billie Jean King Cup Finals next week in Glasgow, after which she plans a brief vacation in Napa Valley wine country with her husband and friends.
Sabalenka never trailed in overpowering Pegula, finishing with a 26-13 edge in winners, and 5 aces, while she also made fewer unforced errors, finishing with 23 to the American’s 26, who appeared uncharacteristically out of sorts and mumbled to herself after many of hers.
“I’m just happy that I was really focused from the beginning to the end, and I was able to finish this match in two sets,” Sabalenka said.
In the night match, Sakkari took a 5-1 lead in the first set against Jabeur, and was never threatened in her 3rd victory over a Top 10 player this week, all in straight sets, after coming in with just one all season, boosting her confidence.
“It was higher than the rest of the season, for sure,” Sakkari said. “But it wasn’t ultra high that I was feeling, like, unstoppable or anything. I was feeling good with my game.”
Jabeur was sloppy in the opener, producing 11 unforced errors, most of them from the forehand side, but when Sakkari served for the set at 5-1, the Tunisian sparked into life and broke her to love.
Earlier this year in Rome, Jabeur had rallied from a 6-1, 5-2 deficit to win without facing a match point, but Sakkari, who might well have remembered the occasion, responded by breaking her for a 3rd time as another Tunisian forehand found the net.
Sakkari has struggled with confidence for much of the year but now looks like a different player, winning a career-best 40 main-draw matches this season.
She is unbeaten in round-robin play this week, wrapping up her latest win in just 68 minutes.
Jabeur, a finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open this year, could have still sneaked into the semis with a straight-sets win over Sakkari, but she never got a look in.
“I think I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Sakkari said in her on-court interview. “I’m trusting myself. I’m just fearless on the court. I’m enjoying myself here.
“There’s no secret behind how I’m playing, it was about time to start playing good again. I’m just very happy that it’s actually happening here.”
As the winner of the Nancy Richey Group, Sakkari is guaranteed not to take on World No 1 Iga Swiatek in the semi-finals, that task falls to Sabalenka.
The 21-year old Pole has 8 titles to her name this year, including the French Open and US Open, and has sat comfortably in the top spot for 30 weeks now.
Swiatek has won the last 4 of her 5 career meetings with Sabalenka, including in the US Open semi-final in September.
Sakkari, meanwhile, will face the victor of Saturday’s winner-take-all contest between France’s Caroline Garcia and Daria Kasatkina from Russia.
The WTA Finals is taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, after the event was moved from usual host city Shenzhen, in China, for the second successive year.
In December last year, the women’s governing body announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China amid concern for former World Doubles No 1 Peng Shuai, who, at 36, disappeared from public view for 3 weeks after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.
In the doubles competition, American Desirae Krawczyk & Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands, the No 8 seeds, advanced to the semi-finals with a 7-6(2) 6-3 win over China’s Xu Yifan & Yang Zhaoxuan, the 6th seeds, after coming back from a break down in the first set.
Krawczyk & Schuurs finished their round-robin campaign with a 2-1 record, and join top seeds and defending champions Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova from the Czech Republic in the Last 4 out of the Rosie Casals Group.
“They’re a great team,” Krawczyk said of the Chinese pair. “We just did what we did best and started being aggressive and taking it to them.
“In the pressure situations, I think we did a great job playing smart in those moments.”
Schuurs has now advanced to her 3rd consecutive semi-final at the WTA Finals with her 3rd different partner, while it is new territory for Krawczyk, who qualified for her first WTA Finals last year in Guadalajara with Alexa Guarachi, but failed to advance.
They maintained their dominance over the Chinese, improving to 3-0 this season without the loss of a set.
An early break gave Xu & Yang a 2-0 lead, and they served for the opening set at 5-4, but a strong return game from Krawczyk & Schuurs earned the pair their first break of the match, and they wrestled back the momentum from there.
With Krawczyk’s intelligent angles and Schuurs’ net craft, the American-Dutch duo took control of the match and sealed the win after 1 hour and 34 minutes.
Top seeds Krejcikova and Siniakova closed out play in the Rosie Casals Group by staying undefeated, beating Gauff & Pegula, 6-2 6-1.