With the Australian Open starting on Monday, it seems some of the major names in the women’s game have little appetite for marquee matches this weekend as Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka have followed Serena Williams in withdrawing from their warm-up WTA500 tournaments in Melbourne.
I have a niggling injury and in light of the AO [Australian Open] on the horizon, I need to be cautious. I look forward to competing next week. It kind of flared up again because I played a lot of matches back-to-back. But for me, my main focus is hoping I can rest enough before the Open. Naomi Osaka
Williams gave World No 1 Ash Barty a semi-final walkover into the Yarra Valley Classic final on Friday, where the Australian will meet Garbiñe Muguruza on Sunday.
Then Osaka, the No 2 seed in the Gippsland Trophy, withdrew from her scheduled semi-final match against No 7 seed Elise Mertens on Saturday, giving the Belgian a spot in the final against Kaia Kanepi; while Victoria Azarenka, favourite for the Grampians Trophy, pulled out to give Anett Kontaveit safe passage into the semis.
“Sorry to Tennis Australia and the fans to have to withdraw today,” said Osaka. “I have a niggling injury and in light of the AO [Australian Open] on the horizon, I need to be cautious. I look forward to competing next week.
“It kind of flared up again because I played a lot of matches back-to-back,” the 23-year-old added. “But for me, my main focus is hoping I can rest enough before the Open.”
Azarenka withdrew from her scheduled quarter-final clash due to a lower back injury, while Williams claimed to have a right shoulder injury.
These withdrawals have the look of precautionary measures, and it was a case of feast to famine for organisers, who put on some 70 matches on Friday after play was postponed a day earlier because of a Covid-19 scare.
Muguruza, however, looked in rude health, backing up Friday’s 6-2 6-2 win over defending AO champion Sofia Kenin, which gave her a measure of revenge for her loss to the American in last year’s final.
The former French Open and Wimbledon champion took less than an hour to blow Czech Marketa Vondrousova off the court at the Margaret Court Arena on Saturday, and she has reached the Yarra Valley Classic final with the loss of only 10 games in 4 matches.
“I think I played well today, my serve was working well at the right moments and I was able to control the match,” said Muguruza, who meets Barty in a blockbuster of a final match. “I’m expecting another battle tomorrow.”
Estonia’s Kanepi continued her stellar run in the Gippsland Trophy with a 6-3 7-6(6) victory over No 9 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia to reach her first WTA singles final since 2013.
The former World No 15 last played a championship match on the WTA nearly eight years ago, when she claimed her fourth career title in Brussels.
While Mertens reached two finals in 2020, on the clay courts in Prague and the indoor hard courts of Linz, the Belgian will play for her first singles title since she triumphed at the Qatar Total Open in Doha in early 2019.
Kanepi has looked in imperious form as the Melbourne event has moved towards its climax, including the 12th Top 10 win of her career, which came over Aryna Sabalenka in the second round, quelling the Belarusian’s 15-match winning streak.
“I didn’t expect to be in the final, I just expected to play good every match I play,” said Kanepi during her post-match press conference on court.
The 6-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist held firm against the sturdy groundstrokes of Alexandrova in the closely-contested encounter and they each struck nearly identical numbers of winners and unforced errors, but ultimately Kanepi converted all 3 of her break points, while the Russian only went 2-for-5 on her chances.
The first set of the hard-hitting affair was decided by Kanepi’s early break in the second game, which she never rescinded as both of Alexandrova’s break points at 4-2 went begging and the Estonian zipped to the one-set lead.
Miscues by Kanepi caused her to falter when serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set, and the Estonian also let a lead slip in the tiebreak, when 4-0 turned into 6-6, but on her 2nd match point at 7-6, she slammed down a strong serve and followed up with a forehand winner to clinch the win.
In the Grampians Trophy, Maria Sakkari notched her first win in 3 career meetings with Angelique Kerber to reach the final four, and takes on Kontaveit next for a place in the final, while Jennifer Brady and Ann Li will contest the other semi-final.
Sakkari erased a hefty first-set deficit to oust No 8 seed from Germany, 6-4 6-2, and claim her first victory over the former World No 1.
“I have my Greeks here, which feels great!” Sakkari said during her post-match interview on court, thrilling her sturdy number of supporters on MCA. “That’s the first thing I’m looking forward to when I come to Australia, so it was great.
“Funnily enough, this is my home tournament,” Sakkari added. “I don’t have a professional tournament back home, so as I mentioned, every time I come back to Australia, it feels like I’m at home.”
Kerber picked off 4 of the first 5 games of the match before Sakkari turned the match around, breaking the three-time Grand Slam champion 5 times en route to the 73-minute victory.
Sakkari gritted through a close game to hold for 4-2, grabbing the momentum with both hands and winning a 9 games in a row to move ahead 6-4, 4-0.
She never let up and finished off the match with a forehand crosscourt winner, her 26th winner of the day.
The other Grampians semi-final will be an all-American affair between No 7 seed Brady and Li.
Brady got through a tough match against Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, 7-6(5) 6-4, in which both were stellar on serve, and saved 5 of 5 break points in the 1-hour and 52-minute encounter.
Krejcikova was also nearly impeccable saving break points, fending off 11 of 12, but the one Brady converted made the difference and gave the American a straight-set win.
“I was pretty happy with the way I stayed pretty calm throughout that tiebreak,” Brady said, after her win. “I wasn’t really focused on the score, I was kind of just taking it point by point.
“Really happy with the way I served today, and just kept looking for forehands and playing aggressively.”
For Li, it will be a first-ever WTA singles semi-final after the 20-year-old dispatched Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 6-3 6-1.
The World No 99 needed a smidge over an hour to get the victory and post her best result to date at a WTA event.
Sunday’s two semi-final showdowns will be the last matches of the Grampians Trophy and, due to the delayed schedule, the final will not be played.