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Sakkari downs Kenin, Sabalenka next

Both Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina bowed out of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Open on Monday, losing in three sets to Maria Sakkari and Veronika Kudermetova respectively, and leaving Aryna Sabalenka now the clear favourite for the title.

I have a lot of power and I have been using it the right way. Up until last year I couldn't really control my power so I had to take a little bit of pace off because I was hitting too hard and I was missing many shots. So I think I've found a way and I've found my real pace on the court. When I have an opportunity I go for it and that builds confidence. Maria Sakkari

Kenin, the current World No 4, fell short on reaching the semi-finals as she prepares to defend her Grand Slam title in Melbourne next month.

Sakkari stormed back from a set down to eliminate the top seeded American, 2-6 6-2 6-0, and set up a date with World No 10 Sabalenka, who extended her 13 match-winning streak to book her spot in the semis.

“Beating these players this week it means a lot,” Sakkari told the press after her win. “I’m playing players that I’ve never played, like [Muguruza] yesterday, so I have a better idea if I play them again.

“So, in general, it gives me a lot of confidence starting the year like that and I’m super happy to travel to Australia with some good matches with me.”

The Greek, who is seeded 9th here for the title, reeled off the final 10 games to upset Kenin and earn her 5th career Top 5 win.

Sakkari charged back from the loss of a quick first set to dominate the final two frames and collect the win after 83 minutes of play.

Overall, Sakkari converted 6 of her 13 break points, and fired 23 winners, including 9 aces, to Kenin’s 8 winners.

“I think I was rushing a little bit too much at the beginning of the match,” said Sakkari.

“I didn’t really know what I had to do once I saw that what I was doing wasn’t working. I tried a different way that actually worked. I tried to be more solid and make more balls.

“I think I did way too many errors and I was hitting too big when I didn’t have to. But I’m glad that once again I found the way to turn the match around.

“I think that one of the things that really helped me is that I realised that my ball is pretty heavy,  I have a lot of power and I have been using it the right way.

“Up until last year I couldn’t really control my power so I had to take a little bit of pace off because I was hitting too hard and I was missing many shots.

“So I think I’ve found a way and I’ve found my real pace on the court. When I have an opportunity I go for it and that builds confidence.”

Sakkari will now face Sabalenka, the No 4 seed, in the final four, after the Belarusian outlasted No 6 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in Monday’s first quarter-final, 6-4 4-6 6-3.

Sabalenka has defeated Sakkari in 3 of their 4 meetings, including twice in the Middle East last season, at both Doha and Dubai.

“[Sabalenka is] super confident now,” said Sakkari. “We know each other really well, we practice a lot together.

“She’s having a great career so far and she’s really young. She’s one of the toughest players to play out there.

“I beat her once so I think I can do it again. I’m not saying I will for sure, but it’s going to be a very tough match for both.”

Aryna Sabalenka outlasted Elena Rybakina to reach the semi-finals in Abu Dhabi where she takes on Maria Sakkari

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Little separated Sabalenka and Rybakina, who had yet to lose a set coming into their quarter-final clash.

The 34-minute opener was decided by a single break point that came on the last point of the set after both exchanged cool, clean holds for the first six games of the match.

Sabalenka was able to come through the first tough service game of the match after being pressed to 2 deuces to hold to 4-3.

Rybakina was the first to blink and it cost her dearly when serving at 4-5, having lost just 3 points on her delivery to this point and falling behind a quick 0-40, allowing Sabalenka to break for the set on her first chance as the Kazakh sent a tight forehand wide.

“I knew that she was going to play really fast and deep and I have to stay lower so I prepare myself for these shots,” Sabalenka said after the match. “I knew that it’s going to be like this because she’s playing really free and sometimes you don’t have time to prepare for the shots and she’s making a lot of winners.

“That’s what happens against these times of players. Everything can change really quick.

“You have to wait for your opportunity because these kinds of players cannot play all the time at this level. It will drop a little bit and I have to be ready for this moment.

“Even when she’s playing well I need to try to do something against her, show her that I will fight no matter what and give her an extra ball to hit. That’s tough but I knew it was going to happen and that’s why I adjust really well today.”

Rybakina kept her cool and broke Sabalenka immediately at the start of the second set, and never looked back, holding firm in the face of the Belarusian’s blistering returns.

After falling behind a double-break at 1-4, Sabalenka was unable to make up her deficit, although she did recover one break back and reeled off two strong games to close the gap to 3-4.

Serving at 4-3, 30-all, Rybakina found a scintillating forehand cross-court winner to earn game point and calmly closed out the game with a big service winner up the tee to slam the door on Sabalenka’s comeback attempts, eventually closing out the set at 6-4.

“The first set was a really great set from the both of us,” Sabalenka said. “The second set, I think at the beginning I dropped my level a little bit and wasn’t ready for her coming back in the match.

“Then after 1-4 it was really good that I kept trying to come back and kept trying to find my game again. That really helped me in the third set to be actually in the match and compete on this high level. That definitely helped me to win the third set.”

Sabalenka took a short toilet break between sets, before breaking Rybakina in her opening service game and consolidated easily to build a quick 3-0 lead.

Rybakina’s first serve deserted her for much of the set and despite serving 12 aces in the match, she served at just over 50% in the final frame, and she failed to generate any pressure on Sabalenka’s serve.

Stepping to the line to serve out the win at 5-2, Sabalenka needed 3 match points but finally converted with the help of a big serve to close out the high-quality match after just over two hours.

Sabalenka finished with 30 winners to 37 unforced errors, out-hitting Rybakina’s 24 winners to 27 unforced errors.

“I’m really happy that already at the beginning of the season I’ve played against different styles,” Sabalenka said. “That’s really good and I’m really happy.

“It’s giving me a lot of advantage. It’s perfect to start the season like that after the pre-season. I will prepare myself, doesn’t matter who I’m playing against. My coach is preparing me really well and I know I will be ready for each player.”

Elsewhere, unseeded player Veronika Kudermetova of Russia eliminated the No 2 seed Elina Svitolina, 5-7 6-3 7-6(3) to seal her spot in the semis where she will meet another unseeded contender in Marta Kostyuk, who picked up a victory against Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, 0-6 6-1 6-4, to reach the semi-final.



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