Garbiñe Muguruza was severely tested in her semi-final at the Dubai Duty Free on Friday by Elise Mertens, who faced down 6 match points before being dispatched by the Spaniard, 6-4 7-6(5).
I feel like holding a champion's trophy is everyone's objective. For me, we work hard to be able to play finals, but it's never easy to go out and win tournaments. I'm very excited just to be in these circumstances, and maybe the recent finals I've played haven't gone my way, but at some point, they will, and to be able to be there is a sign that you're playing well. That's where I want to be, bring my best tennis, and hopefully get a trophy! Garbiñe Muguruza
Muguruza will face Barbora Krejcikova in the final of the WTA 1000 on Saturday.
It took the No 9 seed two tight sets to get past the 10th seed from Belgium in a match that lasted more than 2 hours and delivered thrilling tennis as Muguruza claimed her 17th win of the season and reached her 3rd final of the year.
“I felt she was very good on defence, and especially on match points, she brought her magic with her shots, the slice, and tricky balls,” Muguruza said in her post-match press conference.
“I didn’t think I played any of the match points badly; they were just some tough points that weren’t going my way.
“Still, I knew I was playing well and that I would convert, so I didn’t lose concentration or get too irritated.”
Impressive as Muguruza’s start to the season has been, Mertens has been on a similar path since the tour’s suspension ended last summer, reaching the US Open quarter-finals and beginning the season with a 6th career title at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne.
Nevertheless, Muguruza, who struck 36 winners to 40 unforced errors in the semi-final, was nearly always ahead on the scoreboard.
Although she was broken in the opening game, a 4-game streak saw her take control of the first set as, using her solid backhand and moving up the court to put away the ball, the former World No 1 advanced to 5-2.
Mertens saved a set point with a creative drop-shot lob combo and narrowed the gap, creeping back to 4-5 before the Spaniard managed to close it out.
Again, the Belgian initiated an early break point in the second, but Muguruza forced her way forward to build up a 5-3 lead.
Mertens lasered flat drives into each corner to fend off the first match point she faced, and played her defensive short forehand slice with deadly effect as Muguruza tried to get herself over the line.
The Spaniard visibly tensed, well aware of Mertens’ ability to escape such moments, as the Belgian nibbled down the deficit with crafty play.
After saving the first of 7 match points after an exhausting rally, re-absorbing Muguruza’s pace for a scintillating forehand winner, Mertens staved off 3 more on her own serve but won a 3rd straight game to find herself serving for a deciding set.
Muguruza regrouped to win 5 points in the ensuing tiebreak, earning herself 3 more match points and although Mertens saved the first two, the Spaniard finally finished it off with a mid-court smash to reach her second final of the Middle East swing.
“You have to be all the time concentrated, otherwise she will come back,” said a relieved Muguruza after finally putting away the overhead. “I didn’t lose the focus even though I couldn’t close it [at first] – I was just looking forward to the next opportunity.”
“It was emotional because after five or six match points, I felt like I was playing well, but she was just bringing her best shots at the right times,” Muguruza observed. “I was like, ‘Man, I have to close it out here,’ so I was relieved to close it out in two sets, because it was a physical match, and I could feel that, if she won the second set, she would be even more pumped for the third.
“She also saved some match points yesterday, so she was hanging in there. I wasn’t losing my concentration either, and was just looking for the right shots.
“I stopped thinking about how many match points, and decided I would play them exactly how I wanted to play.
“If they didn’t go my way, at least I did what I wanted to do. Even if it took, I would say, too many match points, I was convinced that was the only way I could win the match.
“Sometimes you close it out on the first match point, and everyone’s happy, but other times it takes more.”
The second semi-final saw two unseeded players go head-to-head, with Krejcikova beating Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann, 7-5 6-2.
Krejcikova, the World No 63, triumphed on her 3rd match point and described the opportunity to play double Grand Slam champion Muguruza in the final as an ‘amazing experience’.
A former WTA doubles No 1, Krejcikova made it look easy against the Swiss as she came back from down a break down in the opening set and saved 2 set points before taking the lead and winning the last 3 games in a row.
The second set was relatively easier affair, although Krejcikova had to fend off break points while serving for the match in the 8th game and then, needed 3 match point sto reach the biggest final of her career.
Neither player had dropped a set coming into the final, but it was Krejcikova who prevailed in an hour and 37 minutes.
“Today I wasn’t really playing my best, but also because Jil didn’t really let me play my best,” Krejcikova said, in her post-match press conference. “I’m just really happy that I was able to save those two set points in the first set.
“Then I just found my rhythm a little bit better, then I was just really happy that I was able to close it.”
“Since the first match, I felt really good, with the balls, with the court, with the conditions here,” Krejcikova added.
“I’m just really happy that I can still keep going, that I still feel good, and I’m just enjoying myself all the time when I’m on the court — winning or even losing, I’m always enjoying being on court.”
Overall, Krejcikova saved 10 of the 11 break points she faced in the match and struck 21 winners.
Teichmann had dropped serve only once all week coming into the semi-final, and she stayed sturdy in the opening stages of the first set as she held comfortably through to 5-4 when a forehand miscue by Krejcikova gave the Swiss double set point.
The Czech, however, used a powerful serve and forehand to extricate herself and held on for 5-5.
After missing those chances, Teichmann suddenly fired unforced errors to fall behind 0-40 in the next game.
She saved one break point with an ace, but struck long to give Krejcikova the pivotal break.
With the momentum having completely turned in her favour, Krejcikova took advantage, holding serve with an ace to grab a hard-fought one set lead.
A flurry of lengthy games ended with three service breaks in a row in the second, before Krejcikova held for a 3-2 lead.
She charged ahead, storming to the net to take command, and broke Teichmann to love for 5-2.
In the last game, Krejcikova had to save a break point before converting her 3rd match point to book a spot in the final.
Seeking her first career WTA singles title, Krejcikova now faces Muguruza for the Dubai trophy.
“[Muguruza is] such a good player, I think right now at this moment, she’s one of the top players,” Krejcikova said. “No matter what the result is going to be tomorrow, I’m just going to go out there and really enjoy, just try to play my best tennis, just try to see what she’s actually doing and try to learn a lot of things. [I’ll] try to bring my best game and do the best that I can.”
This is Muguruza’s 3rd final this season, with her first coming at the Yarra Valley Classic, where she lost o Ashleigh Barty, and the second last week in Doha when she lost to Petra Kvitova.
“I feel like holding a champion’s trophy is everyone’s objective,” Muguruza said. “For me, we work hard to be able to play finals, but it’s never easy to go out and win tournaments.
“I’m very excited just to be in these circumstances, and maybe the recent finals I’ve played haven’t gone my way, but at some point, they will, and to be able to be there is a sign that you’re playing well.
“That’s where I want to be, bring my best tennis, and hopefully get a trophy!”
The last four encounters also took place in the doubles competition with 8th seeds Alexa Guarachi of Chile & Darija Jurak of Croatia beating American wildcards Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Jessica Pegula, 6-4 6-3.
Guarachi & Jurak let a commanding 5-1 lead in the second set get narrowed to 5-3 before they broke the Mattek-Sands serve once more to claim the win.
It is the first final of the season for Jurak, while Guarachi has already picked up a title this year, in Adelaide alongside Desirae Krawczyk.
In the second doubles semi-final, 5th seeds Timea Babos of Hungary & Veronika Kudermetova of Russia were knocked out by Chinese pair Xu Yifan & Yang Zhaoxuan, 6-3 7-5.