Top seeds Maria Sakkari and Anett Kontaveit booked their semi-final dates with Irina-Camelia Begu snd Jelena Ostapenko respectively at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy on Friday.
I have been diagnosed with something in my lungs which is not normal. And still, I'm happy I can play but it's going to take me a while to recover—they said about two, three months. I think it happens with a lot of athletes, that your fitness, it's not the same level. So, it's very tough but I have to, you know, just work with what I have. Belinda Bencic
Sakkari claimed a 7-6(7) 6-2 win over 8th seed Elise Mertens, while Kontaveit saw off 5th-seeded Belinda Bencic by the very same score, 7-6(7) 6-3, although the No 1 seed took some 20 minutes longer to accomplish the task in hand.
The Greek saved 3 set points in a narrowly contested first set before sealing it on her own 3rd opportunity, and then converted her 4th match point after 2 hours and 7 minutes.
The first set was unpredictable until the last point, featuring 6 breaks of serve and shifting momentum as both found their best tennis when falling behind.
The World No 7 raced through the first 6 points, but it was Mertens who scored the first break with a pair of superb backhands.
The Belgian held 2 points for a 5-2 double-break lead, only for Sakkari to stave them off with big serving and taking the next 3 games to lead 5-4.
Sakkari held her first 2 set points in that game, only for Mertens to escape, thanks to some delicate net play, but despite coming within 2 points of the set herself at 6-5, she then failed to serve it out, nor could she convert 3 more set points in the ensuing tiebreak.
Ultimately, it was Sakkari who proved the more solid, with the final 3 points of the set decided by unforced errors from Mertens, who vainly attempted to hit through the Greek’s defence.
“When you’re down in the score, you try to play more aggressively and she was playing really good in the last couple of games,” Sakkara said later. “She came up with good serves and solid shots from the baseline. I just fought hard.”
A sprinkling of Mertens double-faults in the first set turned into a cascade in the second, as she coughed up 2 in each of her first 3 service games, and eventually racked up 11 of them.
Sakkara quickly gained a 5-0 lead but, when faced with a match point, Mertens took advantage of the Greek’s brief hesitation to avoid the bagel by smacking a return winner – a go-for-broke approach that threatened an unlikely comeback.
Serving for the match a second time, Sakkari fell 0-40 down after losing the first point on a net touch, but Mertens was too error-prone by then to grab the life-line, and the Greek found a strong first serve to convert her 4th match point for the win.
The result puts Sakkara into her first semi-final of the year, and 10th in her last 23 tournaments dating back to Ostrava 2020, while it is also her 2nd run to the last 4 in St Petersburg, having lost to Elena Rybakina at that stage in 2020.
In dispatching the 26th-ranked Belgian, Sakkari will face the World No 56 in Irina-Camelia Begu in the semi-finals after the Romanian defeated CzechTereza Martincova, 6-4 6-2, in an all-unseeded quarter-final.
This is the first last-4 showing for Begu at WTA 500 level since Moscow 2017.
Second-seeded Anett Kontaveit from Estonia came through the 4th quarter-final late on Friday, to set up a clash with Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who claimed a hard-fought 3 set win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich from Belarus, 7-6(5) 4-6 6-4, after a two-and-a-half-hour tussle.
Kontaveit blasted her way past Bencic to win her 18th straight indoor match as she grabbed a 7-6(7) 6-2 win in an hour and 42 minutes.
“It was a very competitive match today,” Kontaveit said “I think the momentum changed quite a few times in the first set, but I was very happy with the way I fought, and no matter the score I was trying to stay the same and keep a positive mindset.
“I think that was the key for me today.”
Kontaveit claimed 20 of Bencic’s 29 second-service points, propelling her to 5 breaks of serve in the contest.
A topsy-turvy opening set saw Kontaveit lose an early 3-0 advantage, as Bencic reeled off 5 games in a row to notch up a 5-3 lead but, when the Swiss served for the set at 5-4, she failed to hold as the Estonian struck back to reclaim parity.
They moved on to the tiebreak, where a beautiful backhand gave Bencic the first crack at set points at 6-4, but an untimely double-fault and a missed return allowed Kontaveit back in and she levelled at 6-6, and claimed her own set point with a backhand winner for 7-6.
Bencic saved that chance with a winning volley, but a strong service return by Kontaveit gave the No 2 seed her 2nd set point at 8-7, which she converted after 60 minutes of play when the Swiss return flew long.
The second was more straightforward, as Kontaveit raced out to a commanding 4-0 lead, but, once again, Bencic clawed a break back for 4-2, before the Estonian recovered with another quick break for 5-2, and served out the match with ease.
Later, Bencic, the Olympic champion and former World No 4, revealed that she has been diagnosed with something in her lungs following her battle with COVID-19, which she picked up while playing the Abu Dhabi exhibition match in December.
After returning home, Bencic tested positive for coronavirus, as did several of the other participants in Abu Dhabi.
“It was not easy,” Bencic told the media in Russia. “I have been diagnosed with something in my lungs which is not normal.
“And still, I’m happy I can play but it’s going to take me a while to recover—they said about two, three months.
“I think it happens with a lot of athletes, that your fitness, it’s not the same level.
“So, it’s very tough but I have to, you know, just work with what I have.”
Meanwhile, Kontaveit is looking forward to her meeting with Ostapenko, who she has beaten twice in their past three encounters.
“Jelena, she’s been playing really well,” said Kontaveit. “She plays very aggressive, so I’ll have to be ready for that, and just enjoy myself out there and do the best that I can. Definitely I’ll be ready for a very tough match, and I’ll be tough as well.”
Ostapenko fired 64 winners in her 3-set win Sasnovich, extending her solid start to the season to reach her 4th WTA semi-final since last June.
The 2017 Roland Garros champion is a formidable ball-striker, who all too often got undercut by inconsistency and emotional upheaval, but in the last 6 months since her intriguing run to the Eastbourne title she has found a way to channel the talent that got her to the 2018 semi-final finish.
Sasnovich is a speedy Belarusian whom Ostapenko had beaten in their 3 previous meetings.
The Belarusian fought valiantly as she attempted to collect another victory during a resurgent start to 2022, but in the end, it was Ostapenko who came out on top of the hard-hitting affair, saving 16 of the whopping 21 break points she faced while clinching 6 of her 9 to eke out the lengthy victory.
They mirrored each other in the first set, with 29 winners from Sasnovich outpacing Ostapenko’s 26 as Sasnovich came back from an early break down and saved a set point at 6-5 with a sterling backhand winner, but the Latvian used a strong forehand to garner 3 more set points at 6-3 in the breaker and converted her 4th with a backhand winner.
Ostapenko also went up a break in the second, holding another 4-2 lead, but Sasnovich suddenly went on a tear while the unforced error and double-fault counts rose from the Latvian.
Bolstered by sturdy service returns, Sasnovich claimed 18 of the last 25 points of the set, collecting 4 games in a row to swipe the second set and level proceedings.
Ostapenko had to fend off 6 break points in a protracted game in the decider before holding for 1-1, and the Latvian later saw another break lead slip away as the Belarusian cracked winners to level the set at 3-3.
Breaking Sasnovich again for 4-3, Ostapenko fended yet 3 more break points in the following game with powerful ball-striking to reach 5-3, and she sealed the win from there, using an error-forcing return to grab her first match point, whereupon Sasnovich hit her 10th double-fault of the day.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not quite happy with how I was playing today,” she explained in Russian, later reacting to the subsequent English translation in her inimitably comic fashion. “I played much better in my last two matches.”
Ostapenko shook off a second set hiccup to seal the contest, 7-6(5) 4-6 6-3, despite not being at her best because Sasnovich applied significantly greater pressure on return, teeing off on second to keep the 24-year-old on the back foot.
She saved 5 break points to reclaim the lead, and ultimately saved 10 of 11 break points in the decider to move ahead 5-3 up and, in an ironic twist, benefitted from a Sasnovich double-fault to edge over the finish line after a gruelling 2 hours 27 minutes.
Ostapenko admonished her errors, 65 in total, which was 1 more than her 64 winners.
“I was rushing things on my serve for no reason, plus my opponent played one of her best matches I’ve ever seen her play,” she said.