Aryna Sabalenka could not be happier as she extended her winning streak to 14 matches and reached the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Open final following her 6-3 6-2 win over Maria Sakkari, where she will meet Veronika Kudermetova, who got past Marta Kostyuk, 7-6(8) 6-4, to reach her first-ever WTA singles final.
I’m just focusing on the right things. This helps me to, first of all, not think about all these wins, and secondly, to keep winning. I think I just need to keep focusing on my game, keep focusing on the movement on the court, and try to do everything I can in the moment. I think this works really well. I just want to improve everything in my game. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka has made the perfect start to 2021, continuing the incredible run that has seen her take titles in Ostrava and Linz at the end of last season leading into this event where she has dropped just one set so far.
“I think I put my focus in the right space,” she beamed at the media after her semi-final win. “My serve was working better than yesterday, but overall, I think, this is the same as the match yesterday, the overall quality of the game.
“I’m really happy to win this one.
“Both aggressive players moving really well. I need to be really focused, as always and also [my] serve is really important tomorrow, so i’m really looking forward for this final.”
The Belarussian attributes her impressive form to her newly-found mind-set.
“I’m just focusing on the right things,” she said. “This helps me to, first of all, not think about all these wins, and secondly, to keep winning.
“I think I just need to keep focusing on my game, keep focusing on the movement on the court, and try to do everything I can in the moment. I think this works really well.
“I just want to improve everything in my game.”
With Dieter Kindlmann having replaced Dmitry Tursunov as her coach, Sabalenka revealed what they are working on.
“I want to move better and I feel there is still some things which I can do better. There is still a lot of things to work on and i’ll keep working on them, so I want to have (a) better serve.
“I just want to improve everything in my game. I still think there is so many things to go to improve.
“This really helped me to stay focused on the match and to be calm on the court and not care about losing. I’m just keep improving myself. That’s what makes me happy, to be on this level.”
“I like to play against her”
Sabalenka breezed past Sakkari in just 57 minutes to reach her 13th career WTA singles final, slamming 22 winners in the match, including 8 aces, tempered by just 8 unforced errors in a commanding performance.
The Belarusian World No 10 controlled the court by winning 83 percent of her first-service points, continuing her run of success in the Middle East ,which extends back to a title-winning run in Doha last season, her previous event in the region.
Dominating from the outset with her serve and forehand, Sabalenka powered to a quick break for 2-0 and was impenetrable during her first three service games, racing to 4-1 without dropping a point on serve.
After cracking a forehand return winner to break Sakkari at love for 5-1, Sabalenka was cruising to the one-set lead.
Sakkari fired a return that landed square on the baseline, ending Sabalenka’s 13-point winning streak on her serve, grabbing some momentum and forcing errors with her sturdy shots to earn a break for 5-2.
Sabalenka served out the set at 5-3 after converting her second set point by forcing an error with a stinging crosscourt backhand.
At 2-2 in the second set, Sakkari surged back from 0-40 down to deuce with some clutch serving, but Sabalenka would not be denied, cracking forehand winners to keep herself ahead to ease towards the finish line, aided by some untimely double faults by the Greek.
Serving for the match, Sabalenka did not miss a beat, firing aces to clinch the last two points and romp into the final.
“I like to play against her and it’s always [a] fight against her,” Sabalenka said. “I think i’m putting so much pressure on her every match we’re playing against each other and this helped me win all those matches.”
Awaiting the winner of the second semi-final to determine her final opponent, Sabalenka knew she would face an unseeded player in their first-time WTA singles final in either Veronika Kudermetova of Russia or Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine.
“Both aggressive players, moving really well,” said Sabalenka. “I need to be really focused, as always, and also serve is really important tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to this final.”
As it happened it was Kudermetova who edged Kostyuk in two close sets, 7-6(8) 6-4, to reach the championship match in an hour and 40 minutes.
“I think it was a really tough match today,” said Kudermetova, who is ranked 46 and is from Russia. “I think we were a little bit nervous.
“It was really tough, but I tried to be focused until the end.
“I think I have a little bit more experience than Marta. She’s really young, she’s 18. Today, I think it was the key, [that] I really have a little bit more experience than her.”
In a closely-contested match, very little separated the two, with Kudermetova’s 5 service breaks to Kostyuk’s 4 making the difference in the match
Kostyuk struck 22 winners to Kudermetova’s 21, but the World No 99 from Ukraine, who was in her first WTA semi-final, had 3 more unforced errors than the Russian.
Kudermetova, who notched her 5th career Top 10 win over Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, now hopes to pull off another upset against Sabalenka in the final.
“We’re friendly, and I think it’s a really interesting and fun match tomorrow,” she said.
“From my side, I don’t have expectations for tomorrow, because Aryna, she is a Top 10 player, she plays unbelievable, she’s played really good here.
“I think she’ll have a little bit more pressure than me because she’s supposed to win tomorrow.
“She’s stayed Top 10, she’s already won two tournaments in a row. Tomorrow, I’ll play free, I’ll try to play relaxed and try to enjoy my final.”
Kostyuk claimed the early lead in the opening frame, blasting her way to a break for 3-1 after Kudermetova was unable to get a first serve into play during that game.
The Russian, however, quickly brushed that off, cracking powerful returns of her own to break back in the very next game and then went on a run, firing a forehand passing winner to move ahead a break at 4-3, and serving for the set at 5-4.
Kostyuk charged the net with great success, putting away overheads with aplomb to break for 5-5 and the tense opener moved into a tiebreak, with very little separating the two.
The Ukrainian claimed the first set point at 6-5, after coming out on top in a gruelling rally, but then dropped her next 2 service points, one on a double fault, giving Kudermetova a set point at 7-6.
Deep, strong returns by Kostyuk saved that set point, as well as a second at 8-7, but Kudermetova earned a third set point with a rally forehand winner, and the Russian at last closed out the breaker, 10-8, after a netted return by her 18-year-old opponent.
Kudermetova claimed the early lead in the second set, blasting a stunning forehand crosscourt return winner onto the sideline to wrap up a break for 2-0.
Kostyuk charged back, getting back on serve for 3-2, but the Ukrainian followed that comeback up by dropping serve at love, as Kudermetova fired a forehand winner to close out another break for 4-2.
Serving for the match at 5-3, Kudermetova pulled off some strong serves to garner 2 match points, but the steely Kostyuk fought through the game to fend off those chances.
A missed drop-shot by Kudermetova on break point gave the Ukrainian new life, as the teenager was back on serve at 5-4.
Miscues by Kostyuk gave Kudermetova 2 more match points in the next game, though the Ukrainian used aggressive play to stave off that pair as well.
In the end, though, it was Kudermetova who broke through for her first final, winning a final rally on her 5th match point to attain her place in Wednesday’s final.
The doubles final is also set for Wednesday, with No 5 seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara facing No 8 seeds Hayley Carter & Luisa Stefani for the title.
Aoyama & Shibahara, both of Japan, defeated Sofia Kenin of the United States & Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, 6-4, 6-3.
Carter of the United States & Stefani of Brazil outlasted reigning US Open champions Laura Siegemund of Germany & Vera Zvonareva of Russia, 7-5, 1-6, [10-8].