Tokyo | It’s Samsonova against Zheng in the final

At the Toray Pan Pacific Open, Liudmila Samsonova reached her 3rd final of year in Tokyo after dispatching Zhang Shuai in their semi-final, where she will meet Zheng Qinwen, who squeaked her way past Veronika Kudermetova in 3 very tight sets to make her first.

I didn’t expect this at all. I came here to try to play my best and I’m in the final. It's amazing. It was a very mental game because she was playing amazing, so I tried to stay in there, and play with her game. It was tough, but in the tiebreak, I think, I played better. Liudmilla Samsonova

Samsonova’s surge through the second half of the season continued unabated when the World No 30 from Russia defeated Zhang Shuai, ranked 28 from China, 7-6(4) 6-2, in a hard-hitting contest on Saturday.

“I’m feeling so happy because I’m in another final in [the last] two months,” Samsonova said in her post-match press conference. “It’s amazing.

“I never think it’s going to be possible, something like this, so I’m incredibly happy.”

Samsonova, who has won 17 of her last 18 matches, including 2 consecutive titles in Washington, DC and Cleveland, is currently an undefeated 3-0 in WTA singles finals in her career, her only loss since July coming in the Round of 16 at the US Open, where she saw a 13-match winning streak snapped by Ajla Tomljanovic.

The Russian sent down an early message in her opening service game against Zhang, firing a couple of aces that topped 180 kph.

She broke the 33-year-old Chinese in the next game with some powerful ground strokes, but she was also broken in her second service game after making unforced errors, then recovering to win her next 2 deliveries to love.

After the early exchange of breaks, they settled into a rhythm of fast-paced groundstrokes as they moved inexorably into a first-set tiebreak, in which Samsonova took command with fiery forehands down the stretch to reach set point at 6-4.

Zhang, the World No 28, played steadily enough, but she could not keep Samsonova’s power at bay, although the Russian’s error count had kept the match pretty level.

A blistering forehand into the right corner gave Samsonova set point, and she converted by slamming down her 7th ace of the set out of her total 13.

Zhang Shuai was out-powered by Ludmilla Samsonova in the semi-final encounter in Tokyo

© Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

After breaking Samsonova in the first game of the second, Zhang then blew a 40-0 lead in the next game and lost her own serve as the Russian returned to top gear, with her high-octane game garnering her an immediate break back, after which she cruised through the rest of the affair, winning the final 4 games of the match.

The 23-year-old Russian, who is ranked 30, had raised her game when needed, and effectively ended the contest as Zhang’s resistance faded.

“I didn’t expect this at all,” said Samsonova, who beat Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the 1st-round and 3rd-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza in the quarter-finals. “I came here to try to play my best and I’m in the final.

“It’s amazing. It was a very mental game because she was playing amazing, so I tried to stay in there, and play with her game. It was tough, but in the tiebreak, I think, I played better.”

Firing 40 winners in Saturday’s first 1-hour and 27-minute semi-final, well outpaced Samsonova’s 25 unforced errors, with 13 of those being aces, which takes her to a total of 34 in her 4 victories this week.

Zheng Qinwen squeaked past Veronika Kudermetova in a gruelling 3 sets to make her first WTA final on Saturday

© Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Samsonova’s opponent in the final is Zhang’s young compatriot, Zheng Qinwen, who won the 2nd semi-final of the day, upsetting another Russian, 4th-seeded Kudermetova, in a barnburner of a match that lasted 3 hours and 4 minutes.

The 19-year old continued her winning run in Tokyo, beating the sole remaining seed, 5-7 6-3 7-6(3), at the Ariake Coliseum in another Chinese-Russian match-up.

Zhang and Kudermetova traded huge ground shots, big serves and plenty of errors as they pushed each other to the limits.

Having ousted Spanish top seed Paula Badosa in the 2nd-round, Zheng had an early advantage after breaking Kudermetova in the 4th game, but the Russian stayed on track and broke the teenager in the 7th and 9th games to secure the set.

There was just one break of serve in the remainder of the match, when an error by Kudermetova gave Zheng the advantage in the second set.

Although the Chinese had to save herself several times, her errors were often matched by great recoveries, and the gruelling match began to take its toll on Kudermetova, who needed a medical timeout for an arm problem after going 6-5 up in the final set.

Zheng, the World No 36, then served to love to set up the tiebreak and errors by Kudermetova, including a double-fault at 2-5, saw the Russian’s hopes of reaching the final unravel.

“After the match, when I won the last point, the feeling was incredible,” Zheng said. “The opponent, she’s playing unbelievable tennis.

“She has a really good serve and hits the ball hard, she moves well.

“I’m so glad, in the tiebreak, I choose, sometimes, the right ball and made a good effort to win the match.

“It’s my first time in the final. I’m so happy.”

4th-seeded Veronika Kudermetova fought hard but could not get past Zheng Qinwen in the second semi-final of the day

© Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Zheng, who is now in her first WTA final, will need to be more efficient to beat Samsonova, especially on her own service games.

She fired 8 aces to Kudermetova’s 6, but 24 more second serves than her opponent.

“I feel so amazing to arrive in the final,” Zheng said. “Today was a really, really difficult match. Every point was so important, and there were a lot of emotions.

“My opponent played really good. She has a good serve, and really good baseline shots, and it was not easy.”

Her compatriot, Zhang Shuai, is confident she is destined for greater things.

“For sure some day she’ll win a Grand Slam,” Zhang said. “When I played her, I couldn’t find where I could win points.

“Most of the time when you play someone, you find a way to play someone, you find a way to win points but with her, no way.

“She’s strong from both sides and has a big serve.”

This time last year, Zheng was ranked outside of the Top 150, but the 19-year-old has repeatedly proven over the last 12 months that she can contend with the elite players on tour.

Kudermetova severely tested her on Saturday, coming back from 1-4 down in the first set to take it, after holding break points in each of Zheng’s service games.

The Chinese leapt to another 4-1 lead in the second, and she held onto that advantage this time around, levelling the match at a set apiece before they moved into an intense decider, which was settled by a tiebreak after both held serve all the way through.

In the decisive breaker, a volley winner gave Zheng the first mini-break at 3-2, which she followed up with two commanding service winners to lead 5-2.

On Zheng’s second match point at 6-3, Kudermetova fired a return long, and Zheng was into her first final, becoming only the second teenager to reach a final at WTA 500-level or higher this season, joining Coco Gauff, who reached the Roland Garros final at age 18.

Looking ahead to the final, Zheng leads Samsonova 1-0 in their head-to-head, having surprised the No 2 seed as a qualifier in the 1st-round of Palermo on clay last year.



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