Unseeded Italian Jasmine Paolini continued her dream week at the Zavarovalnica Sava Portoroz on Saturday, beating 2nd-seeded Yulia Putintseva from Kazakstan, 1-6 6-3 6-4, to reach her first WTA final where she will face No 3 seed Alison Riske from USA for the title.
I think being more patient [was key], because at the beginning I was hitting every ball to make the point, but she defends very good, so I was doing too many mistakes. Then I tried to be more patient, to play more balls in the court, to be in the point, and I think that was the key. Jasmine Paolini
“It means a lot,” Paolini said, after her win. “I’m playing good, so I’m very happy. It wasn’t an easy match today, so I’m double-happy about the win!”
Paolini, who also beat 6th-seeded Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine and Croatia’s 4th seed Sorana Cirstea this week, had never previously progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a tour event.
The 25-year-old pushed Victoria Azarenka in the second round of the US Open, though, but she was totally dominated in the opening set by Putintseva before she grasped the tactics that the Ukrainian put into play to fare better.
Shrugging off her poor first set, Paolini broke Putintseva in her opening service game of the second, and established control to set up a decider.
It also helped the Italian’s cause that Putintseva effectively unravelled across the latter two sets of the match, which lasted 2 hours and 14 minutes.
“I think being more patient [was key], because at the beginning I was hitting every ball to make the point, but she defends very good, so I was doing too many mistakes,” said Paolini, who finished the match with 32 winners.
“Then I tried to be more patient, to play more balls in the court, to be in the point, and I think that was the key.”
Paolini has excelled in WTA 125 tournaments this year, reaching the Saint-Malo final in May and collecting her biggest title to date in Bol a month later.
The Italian plays a high risk game but Putintseva was indefatigable on defence, breaking immediately, surviving 4 break-back points in a marathon tussle to hold, and then accelerating to take the opener as a cascade of 20 unforced errors poured from the Paolini racket.
Engaging in extended rallies, Paolini struck 25 winners over the next 2 sets, with her powerful forehand providing the finishing shot.
Reversing the pattern of the first set, Paolini survived a 3-deuce tussle to hold for 2-0 in the second, and managed to keep her nose in front from there on in.
Putintseva held on, breaking back for 2-2 in the second set and again when Paolini served for the match at 5-3 in the decider, but the Italian found a series of scintillating winners to run away with the match as the Kazakh was increasingly beset by double-faults, 2 of which handed over the advantage at the start of the final set, while she also coughed up a 7th facing match point.
In the final Paolini faces Riske, who fended off Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan, 6-0 6-4, in the other semi-final.
The 31-year-old American is looking to claim her 3rd career title, and her first since 2019, having needed needed an hour and 27 minutes to notch up her win.
She has looked short of fitness and confidence throughout the grass-court season and, on home soil in the USA, picked up just a handful of wins across the summer and lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Riske was unplayable in the opening set on Saturday against Juvan, but the players exchanged breaks in the second before the American broke in the 9th game and served out the match in the 10th game.
“I started out really hot in the first set, I feel like I didn’t miss a ball,” Riske said. “[Juvan] had a medical time-out, she had an injury, and she kind of changed the way she was playing, so I had to adapt there.
“I figured just staying cool in the moment [was key].”
Riske broke Juvan to love in the opening game, and although the American fended off a pair of break points in each of her first 2 lengthy service games, she never yielded as she took home the bagel.
Down 3-2 in the second and with her thigh strapped, Juvan converted a break point with a forehand passing winner to level, but Riske reclaimed her advantage 2 games later, using her forehand to force a wide error and breaking again for 5-4.
In the next game, a backhand winner by Riske on her first match point wrapped up the win.
The former Top 20 player and 2019 Wimbledon quarter-finalist struck 20 winners to Juvan’s 8, while having 15 fewer unforced errors than the 20-year-old Slovenian, who is ranked 103 in the world.
This is the first meeting between Riske and Paolini and a personal milestone for each, as the Italian reaches the first WTA final of her career and the American makes it to her 10th WTA final after almost two years.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in the final,” Riske said. “I’m looking forward to making it a battle tomorrow.”
The American has been ranked as high as 18 in the world and reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2019, but 2021 has been a difficult year for her, in part due to injury problems.