Effectively the top seed at her first outing of the year, Garbiñe Muguruza found herself bundled out of the Sydney Tennis Classic on Thursday by Daria Kasatkina, who has been enjoying a deep run at Melbourne Summer Set 2 last week, and is continuing the form she ended with in 2021.
To win always feels amazing. Doesn't matter if you are winning the matches right before a slam and you maybe feel you're tired - it doesn't matter, because better you win the matches than you lose first round, and then you go and you have one week to practice, but for what? You have been practicing the whole preseason. So the most important is the confidence, and you get it by winning matches. Daria Kasatkina
The Spaniard admitted to some anxiety after her opening win over the Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova on Wednesday, and she was wary of the encounter with Kasatkina over whom she held a 3-2 edge in their head-to-head records, because every meeting between them had been long and arduous, including the latest at the WTA Finals in November.
“We’ve played many times,” Muguruza said. “I remember long matches, very physical matches, so I’m expecting a similar match, although her game, it’s long rallies and baseline player.
“I expect that that’s going to be a long, tight match.”
Kasatkina had other plans, though, claiming a 6-4 6-4 victory to make her second semi-final of the season in as many weeks, and levelling their head-to-head at 3 wins apiece.
The Russian has yet to drop a set in Sydney, and she snapped the run of 4 three-setters she has played against Muguruza dating back to 2017.
The victory is also Kasatkina’s first Top 5 win since defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the 4th round of Roland Garros 2018, and her 9th in her career overall.
Last year marked a renaissance for the former World No 10, who bounced back up the rankings from 71 to 26 after winning the titles at the Phillip Island Trophy and in St. Petersburg, and reaching a further two finals in Birmingham and San Jose.
In the first set on Thursday, the 24-year old delivered a watertight performance on serve, landing 67% of her first deliveries, and winning 83% of those points, while she did not face a single break point.
In the 5th game, she captured the Muguruza serve as the Spaniard sent a backhand long for the only break in the set.
Matters got more complicated in the second, however, when Kasatkina’s first serve percentage dropped to 57%.
Three times she went up a break, and twice she was broken back, and even when she consolidated her break for 4-2, she was not home and dry as she missed triple break point for a 5-2 double break.
On her first match point she fluffed a 4th double-fault, but she was majestic off the ground when it truly mattered.
An amazing pass to break for 2-1 in the second set prompted a leap into the air with a mighty fist-pump, and she moved up to 5-3 after some superb scrambling, finishing with a backhand screamer down the line.
Muguruza switched to storming the net at every chance, and it paid off but it was too late and not enough to offset her 40 unforced errors.
The WTA Finals champion was unable to hit through Kasatkina consistently enough, and committed wild mistakes under the pressure, both on the smash and the drop-shot.
“I think this is the best start of my career ever,” Kasatkina said afterwards. “I think I never start the season that well.
“To win always feels amazing. Doesn’t matter if you are winning the matches right before a slam and you maybe feel you’re tired – it doesn’t matter, because better you win the matches than you lose first round, and then you go and you have one week to practice, but for what? You have been practicing the whole preseason.
“So the most important is the confidence, and you get it by winning matches.
“This is the most important, because at the end, OK, tiredness can affect, of course, but the most important is to feel confidence while you’re playing.”
With growing confidence, Kasatkina will take on another Spaniard in the semi-finals, Paula Badosa, the 5th seed, who beat Belinda Bencic in a late night match.
Earlier in the day, French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova stormed into the semi-finals with a 6-0 6-2 win over France’s Carolina Garcia, while an ailing Ons Jabeur was forced to quit her match against Anett Kontaveit.
After blanking her opponent in the opening set, the World No 4 from the Czech Republic went up 2-0 in the second, and staved off a come-back attempt by Garcia to close out the match in 68 minutes.
“I was feeling well. I think I was playing solid today,” said Krejcikova, who has dropped only 8 games across two matches in Sydney. “With every single match I’m getting better and better. I’m happy with that.
“I really enjoyed playing on the big stadium here in Sydney with some fans cheering for us. I think the atmosphere was nice and I enjoyed it.”
Up next for Krejcikova is now Kontaveit, who advanced when her Tunisian opponent withdrew with a lower back injury after losing the first set 6-4.
“I think it’s going to be a huge match,” Krejcikova said. “Anett, she’s on a big roll. She’s playing well.
“She does good things, and I’m really looking forward to playing against her, and see where my level is now and how well the off-season was.”
After nearly an hour on court, Jabeur received a medical timeout after the first set was completed, and attempted to start the second but, after serving a let and a first-serve fault, the Tunisian walked to the net for a match-ending hug.
Jabeur, who said on Wednesday she was not 100% due to an elbow problem and a bout of COVID-19 last month, was forced to exit with a new injury that casts doubts on her readiness for the year’s first major, the Australian Open, which starts on Monday.
“I really hope that Ons is going to be fine for next week and that it’s nothing too serious,” Kontaveit said. “The first set was really competitive, and we’ve had some tough matches before, but she’s always come on top.”
Kontaveit lost to Jabeur twice last season, but Thursday’s meeting Down Under was the pair’s first since the were two of the main characters of the season-ending story where the Estonian eclipsed the Tunisian for the 8th and final spot at the Akron WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
In the 51-minute set, Kontaveit won the last 3 games en route to the abridged victory.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough match [against Krejcikova]. She’s playing great. She’s had good wins,” Kontaveit said. “The season is so early on.
“Last time we played was the end of the season. It was different conditions, of course.
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge to play another Top 10 player. I’m glad to be putting myself in these situations and getting good matches and getting quality time on court.”
Meanwhile, former World No 4 Belinda Bencic also admitted feeling a ‘little bit wobbly’ in her first match after recovering from the virus.
Bencic, now ranked at 23 in the world, played at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in mid-December and tested positive after returning home.
“I was struggling a little bit, getting to practice after Covid because the pulse was getting up and the fatigue was still there,” Bencic said. “I think I still have room to feel better and my fitness has to get better.
“I still feel a little bit wobbly and so I think there is still potential, but I’m happy that I can play this tournament.”
Bencic’s match against French lucky loser Océane Dodin was held over from Wednesday and the Swiss Olympic champion had to claw her way to a 2-6 7-5 6-3 win to set up a quarter-final clash with Spain’s Paula Badosa, the 5th seed, later in the day.
After a rain delay, the match was played outdoors at night on Court 1, and although Bencic enjoyed the more glittering junior career, Badosa has dominated their professional rivalry, adding a 3rd win in as many meetings to go with her victories over the Swiss player in Charleston and Madrid last year.
Their first hard court encounter was the hardest-fought yet, though.
Badosa led 5-3 in the first set but, ultimately, needed 6 set points to close out Bencic, who was contesting her second match of the day after completing a rain-delayed come-back over Dodin earlier.
Despite coming out on the wrong end of the first-set tussle, the Olympic gold medallist bounced back to take the second, thanks to a slew of drop-shots, but Badosa proved stronger in the closing stretch as Bencic faded somewhat.
“The key was to stay fighting until the end, like I always try to do,” said Badosa afterwards. “Accepting her good moments, because I think she played amazing and I had a lot of chances and I wasn’t taking them.
“Then I think in the third set I was going for it, very aggressive, and that’s what gave me the match.”
The semi-final will be a first-time pro encounter for Kasatkina and Badosa, although they last played in the 4th round of the 2013 U16 European Junior Championships in Moscow, with the Russian winning in 3 sets en route to winning the title.
While Kasatkina didn’t remember that match, they both spoke about the camaraderie they shared growing up at tournaments together.
“It’s always nice to have these kind of stories where you start playing some Tennis Europe tournaments and U12 together,” said Kasatkina. “And out of nowhere, you’re playing semi-finals in the big tournaments against each other.”
Badosa agreed: “I have pictures of [us at] 13 years old together. We were very close friends when we see each other in tournaments. I know her family and everything.
“She’s a very nice girl. I’m happy that we both made it here. It’s nice to see her as well here, playing in the semi-finals now.”