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Hobart | Rybakina takes down Watson

Hobart | Rybakina takes down Watson

Heather Watson’s excellent run at the Hobart International came to an end at the hands of the No 3 seed Elena Rybakina, who had to battle hard to get past the British qualifier in 3 quality sets to become the first player to reach back-to-back finals in the first two weeks of the year since Agnieszka Radwanska in 2013.

I just pulled a muscle ... it happened to me for the first time and I was a bit scared because it’s not a nice feeling. It was better after the treatment, I’ll go away to the physio and try to recover. Elena Rybakina

In a clash between two players who had both battled through gruelling semi-finals the previous evening, it was Rybakina who prevailed, 6-3 4-6 6-4, to set up a title match against No 4 seed Zhang Shuai from China.

It took 2 hours and 16 minutes, with Watson’s counter-punching and variety providing a good foil to Rybakina’s power, but the Kazakh, who was runner-up in Shenzhen last week to Ekaterina Alexandrova, took the spoils.

Watson was the slower out of the blocks, missing the mark on her backhand wing to concede her serve in the opening game, but she managed to find her range quickly, firing a brace of aces and then nailing a pair of forehand winners to level at 2-2.

Thereafter, it was Rybakina who was able to find another level to resume control, hitting out on return and bringing her formidable crosscourt forehand to bear repeatedly,.

The 20-year-old broke Watson again for 3-2, and once more for the set, taking her first set point as a Watson drop-shot found the net.

The second saw a dramatic turnaround as the 2015 champion hit back.

Deploying the full range of her repertoire, Watson kept Rybakina off balance with sharp forehand angles and judicious use of short balls, and got her reward in the third game.

The Kazakh saved 3 break points with 2 aces and a service winner, but could not fend off the forehand return winner Watson fired on the 4th.

The World No 101 went from strength to strength as she came up with a plethora of winners in the next few games, racing to a 5-1 lead.

Rybakina’s intensity, which had dropped in the face of Watson’s tactical variety, returned with a vengeance as she sought to stay in the set, saving one of 2 set points down 2-5, and clawing her way back to the brink of levelling the set.

Watson staved off the fightback and served out the set at the second time of asking with consecutive service winners.

A compelling, evenly matched decider saw both Rybakina and Watson hitting good form simultaneously.

In the closing stages, Rybakina began to struggle physically, needing treatment on her upper right leg, but remained solid in protecting her serve on resumption, and maintained a clear tactical head when she most needed to.

“I just pulled a muscle … it happened to me for the first time and I was a bit scared because it’s not a nice feeling,” Rybakina told reporters afterwards.

“It was better after the treatment, I’ll go away to the physio and try to recover.”

Serving to stay in the match, Watson opened the door a crack with a 3rd double fault, and Rybakina seized her chance, blowing the door open with big crosscourt strikes off both wings to reach match point, sealing victory with a marvellous switch-up to end a long rally, essaying an exquisitely executed drop-shot winner that dipped just over the net for a clean winner.

Rybakina will play Zhang Shuai in the final on Saturday after the Chinese defeated 5th-seeded Russian Veronika Kudermetova in their semi-final, 6-3 6-4, in 64 minutes.

This is was the first time Zhang and Kudermetova had played each other.

Speaking about her opponent, the World No 40 said: “Veronika, she’s a really great player. She plays really fast and heavy, the ball is really high-quality.

“I always tried to play deep and focus on my serve, and tried to make [returns] in, because she has a great serve.”

In the women’s doubles, the 5th-seeded Indo-Ukrainian team of Sania Mirza & Nadiia Kichenok will take on the 2nd-seeded Chinese pair of Zhang & Shuai Peng in Saturday’s doubles final.

Earlier, Peng & Zhang received a walkover from the all-Belgian team of Alison Van Uytvanck & Kirsten Flipkens.

Mirza & Kichenok defeated the Czech-Slovenian team of Maria Bouzkova & Tamara Zidansek, 7-6(3) 6-2, in an hour and 24 minutes.

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