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Superb Sabalenka storms to Abu Dhabi title

Aryna Sabalenka added a 9th singles trophy to her growing collection when she lifted the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Open trophy on Wednesday after dispatching Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova, 6-2 6-2, in the final.

I will keep improving my game, keep working on some things. It's not just staying in shape. As soon as you stop working on improving your game, you'll start losing, and I think that's the key of successful people, Aryna Sabalenka

The Belarusian captured her 3rd consecutive tour title, and extended her winning streak to 15 matches.

The 22-year-old is also riding an 11-match winning streak in the Middle East, having triumphed in Doha on her last previous visit to the region 11 months ago.

Sabalenka, who won indoor tournaments in Ostrava and Linz at the end of last season, last lost in the third round of the French Open in October.

“I came here to play some matches after one month of just preparation,” Sabalenka told the press after her win. “I played six matches and it’s really important and I’m really happy I could play that long and to win this title.

“I’m going to Australia, I’m confident with only one thing, that I’ll do everything I can to win matches and that’s the only confidence I have right now.

Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko congratulated Sabalenka on her latest victory: “This triumph in Abu Dhabi was a true gift for all Belarusians on the eve of the Old New Year. We proudly follow an impressive series of your victories and believe that commitment, diligence and iron will will definitely lead you to the top – No 1 in the world.”

Sabalenka will rise to a career-high No 7 in the world when the new WTA rankings are released next week.

She now has nearly 3 weeks before the start of the Australian Open, which begins 8 February, where she will be considered one of the top contenders.

Sabalenka has already arranged for an exercise bike to be set up in her hotel room in Melbourne so she can still work out during the two-week quarantine period when players can only leave their rooms for 5 hours per day to practice.

“I will keep improving my game, keep working on some things. It’s not just staying in shape,” she said.

“As soon as you stop working on improving your game, you’ll start losing, and I think that’s the key of successful people,” she added.

In the Abu Dhabi final, Sabalenka drew first blood, breaking for a 4-2 advantage by using the same suffocating kind of tennis that has kept her undefeated since the French Open third round last October and taking a comfortable one-set lead in 26 minutes.

It was one-way traffic for the 22-year-old until Kudermetova finally managed to end a 6-game losing run by breaking the Sabalenka serve for 1-2 in the second set.

The 4th seed retaliated immediately, though, to reclaim control of the contest and it was all over in 65 minutes.

“I’m really proud that I was fighting no matter what,” said Sabalenka. “Some matches, I didn’t feel my serve, some matches I didn’t feel my forehand or backhand, but I would just keep fighting, finding my shots, and that this is what I’m really proud of, and really happy with this title.”

Despite her defeat, Kudermetova can take many positives from her week in the UAE into her Australian Open campaign after making it to her first WTA final and rising to a career-high 36 in the world.

“Now I have confidence, I beat good players here in Abu Dhabi and I feel OK before Australia,” said the 23-year-old Russian.

Sabalenka is 9-4 in career finals and 6-0 in the last 16 months, while Kudermetova was playing in her first tour final.

“I think today is not my day because I was very slow,” Kudermetova admitted. “I had a lot of mistakes.”

The tournament in Abu Dhabi was arranged by the WTA to offer players more match time after the Australian Open was rescheduled for February amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the only WTA Tour event outside Australia in the run-up to the first major of the year.

Shuko Aoyama (L) Japan & Ena Shibahara won the Abu Dhabi doubles title with a win over Hayley Carter & Luisa Stefani

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

In the doubles final, No 5 seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara captured their 4th team title when they defeated No.8 seeds Hayley Carter & Luisa Stefani, 7-6(5) 6-4.

The Japanese duo, who first paired at the 2019 Toray Pan Pacific, capped off a successful week that began with having to save 4 match points to defeat Andrea Klepac & Marta Kostyuk in the first round, prevailing 4-6 7-5 [12-10], and included a dominant win over top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei & Barbora Krejcikova in the quarter-finals.

Aoyama & Shibahara started strongly on Wednesday, breaking immediately to earn a 2-0 lead in the opening set thanks to a smart poach at the net from Shibahara on a deciding point, but the American/Brazilian pair responded with a run of 4 consecutive games, which began with a break of serve to get on the board.

Aoyama & Shibahara wrenched the momentum back and at 3-4 down, the Japanese pair broke with another smart poach from Shibahara to level the set at 4-4.

The teams stayed level in the tiebreak until 5-5 when the Japanese earned set point with more stellar work at the net from Shibahara, who fended off a pair of drives from Carter & Stefani before putting away a tricky overhead smash.

With Aoyama serving on set point, Shibahara redirected a cross-court backhand volley into the open court to seal the opening set.

The second set saw Carter & Stefani jump to a 2-0 lead, but could not counter Shibahara’s standout net play.

As Aoyama held her ground in the baseline exchanges, the 22-year-old dominated the space at the net, and the pair got back on serve and then broke again to move ahead to 4-3, before calmly closing out the match 3 games later.



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