World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka stormed into her maiden semi-final at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Wednesday after crushing Coco Gauff, the American teenager seeded 6, and, for a place in the final, she will meet Maria Sakkari, the No 7 seed from Greece, who battled back to beat Czech Petra Kvitova, seeded15, in 3 sets.
Today was one of the best comebacks of my life. It’s a bloody good win! It is, not only because I was down a set and a break but because she made me play like an amateur in the first set. Maria Sakkari
Sabalenka notched up a 6-4 6-0 demolition job on Gauff after just 64 minutes of play, putting in 73% of her first serves into play, and winning 87% of her first-serve points, while the Belarusian also took 54% of her second-serve points and 58% of points on return of the American’s second serve.
19-year Gauff, however, could only land 52% of her first serves, won 57% of points, and could not conjure up any break point chances.
It was pretty much one-way traffic as the the 2023 Australian Open champion made good on 4 of the 8 break points she created on Gauff’s serve.
Putting her past struggles with double-faults firmly behind her, Sabalenka did not commit a single one against Gauff, while pounding down 5 aces and making 18 winners.
“I knew you guys wanted to send me home,” a smiling Sabalenka told the crowd in her on-court interview “Thank you everyone for coming, and supporting us, mostly her, but us!
“The atmosphere was unbelievable. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here as long as I can.”
The California crowd had been urging on the Gauff, the home favourite, but the Belarusian broke immediately to go 2-0 up in the first set, and the American was unable to match her level, despite playing well, as Sabalenka kept her foot on the gas to dominate and bagel the second.
In search of a third title this year, after winning Adelaide and her first Grand Slam crown in Melbourne, Sabalenka subdued the young American star from the get-go, in full command of her serve and her thunderous ground strokes, leaving Gauff with few options.
She closed out the match with 3 straight un-returnable serves to crush any hopes of a last-ditch come-back.
“It was a great match,” Sabalenka said. “I felt really great on court.
“I just put a lot of pressure on her serve, and that’s why she was struggling, especially in the second set with her serve. That helped me win this match in two sets.”
She avenged a loss to Gauff at Toronto last year, and narrowed the gap in their head-to-head, after losing 3 of 4 prior matches against the American.
“I didn’t really think about our previous matches,” Sabalenka said. “I feel a little bit different on the court this year. I feel like I’m a, little bit, different player.
“I knew if I’m going to bring my tennis on court today, that I’ll have all of chances to win this match.”
Gauff fired half a dozen aces, 12 winners in all, but, under the intense pressure applied by Sabalenka, made 14 more unforced errors than her opponent.
Sabalenka’s next opponent will be the battle-tested Sakkari, who has needed 3 sets in all 3 of her matches here so far, while Kvitova, a former World No 2 now ranked 15, saved 4 match points in her 4th-round win over 3rd-ranked Jessica Pegula.
It was the Greek 7th seed who fought her way out of a huge hole to beat the left-handed Czech in one of her best come-wins.
“Today was one of the best comebacks of my life,” Sakkari said later. “It’s a bloody good win!
“It is, not only because I was down a set and a break but because she made me play like an amateur in the first set.
“I tried to play as physically as possible, and all I can say is that I need a pedicure now, because my feet are bleeding so badly.”
She has kept her chances of reaching back-to-back finals in Indian Wells alive, having finished as the runner-up to Iga Swiatek last spring.
On Wednesday, she came back from a set and 3-1 down to defeat Kvitova, 4-6 7-5 6-1 in a thrilling quarter-final after the Czech had all kinds of chances to close it out in straight sets.
Kvitova got off to a flying start, breaking twice to take a 5-2 lead, only for Sakkari to win back-to-back games, but the Czech managed to hold onto her serve under pressure to take the first set.
The two-time Wimbledon champion then broke in the first game of the second too, but a string of double-faults let Sakkari back into the match.
In fact, the two-time Wimbledon champion held a 15-40 opening to go up 4-1 by a double-break in the second, and, even after missing that chance, she led 40-0 on her own serve to take a 4-2 advantage, but Sakkari came back to break for 3-3.
At 5-6, Kvitova led 40-15, looking to force a tiebreak, and, again, Sakkari did not flinch as the 27-year-old hung in, and broke to extend the match into a decider, and it was the third set that she dominated from start to finish, winning through after 2 hours and 15 minutes of play.
Having made 36 unforced errors across the first 2 sets, Sakkari made just 6 in the decider as she pressured Kvitova from the baseline, who was now struggling to maintain her consistency.
After breaking for a 3-1 lead, Sakkari methodically closed out the match, finishing with 21 winners to 39 unforced errors, while Kvitova fired 29 winners to 52 unforced errors, including 12 double-faults.
Kvitova won 75% of her first-serve points in the first set to Sakkari’s 44%, and while she had started the second set just as strongly, Sakkari finished the set by winning 70% of her first-serve points to the Czech’s 63%.
33-year old Kvitova, though, won 60% of her second-serve points and 69% of points returning the World No 7’s second serve.
In the final set, while Kvitova’s level didn’t dip much, Sakkari’s went up substantially, with the 27-year-old winning 93% of her first-serve points and 82% points on return of the Czech’s second serve.
She also saved both break points she faced while converting 2 break points of her own, and, for the match, Sakkari struck 8 fewer winners than Kvitova’s 29, against 10 unforced errors fewer than the latter’s 52.
“It was just the fact that I came back from a set, break…,” Sakkari said. “Was it love-40 or 15-40? Who knows? Love-40 on her serve.
“It’s a good Kvitova again. I’m not saying that in a bad way. But last year, for me, it was a lot easier [against her] than this year. She’s now in a good form.
“For me, coming back against her, now that she’s playing good, now that she has beaten so many good players, it’s a bloody good win!
“I just feel, like, the fact that I found a way today, was one of the best come-backs of my life.”
The win improves Sakkari’s head-to-head to 5-3 against Kvitova, while 6 of Sakkari’s 7 semi-final appearances at WTA 1000 events have now come on hard courts.
In the Indian Wells semi-final, Sabalenka goes in with a 4-3 lead against Sakkari, although the Greek recently has won 2 matches in a row against the Belarusian, including at the 2022 WTA Finals.
Sakkari is bidding to become the first player to make back-to-back finals at Indian Wells since Maria Sharapova in 2013.
Defending champion Iga Swiatek, who is set to play her quarter-final on Thursday, can also match Sharapova’s feat.