A jubilant Aryna Sabalenka successfully defended her Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in China on Saturday, holding off a determined effort from unseeded American Alison Riske, 6-3 3-6 6-1.
I can't believe that I defend this title. I couldn't even imagine that I will be able to do this. Right now I'm just happy. I don't know. I can't believe it's happened, Aryna Sabalenka
In the 6th edition of the Premier-level event, which began in 2014, the Belarusian became the first player to win consecutive titles, joining Petra Kvitova as a two-time champion after overcoming the American’s aggressive game and outlasting her opponent to eventually cruise to her second Wuhan title.
It is her second singles title of 2019 after winning Shenzhen at the start of the year, where she also beat the unorthodox American.
Unlike their earlier meeting in Shenzhen, Sabalenka was the one who got the quicker start and sped to a comfortable initial lead.
It was a sterner test for the 9th seed in the second set as Sabalenka was forced to save a couple of break points in a long second game.
Riske got the crucial break in the 6th game and managed to hold her momentum to force a decider, which the World No 14 blitzed past her to win, never facing a break point in the entire set.
“I can’t believe that I defend this title. I couldn’t even imagine that I will be able to do this. Right now I’m just happy. I don’t know. I can’t believe it’s happened,” Sabalenka said.
“This means a lot. This year been really tough for everyone. I was really afraid that I will be not able to defend this title. I was already saving my points on the beginning of this year. This was my problem. That’s why I couldn’t work well, couldn’t play well, couldn’t fight actually.
“Finally to defend this title, I couldn’t even imagine it’s going to happened. Right now, it’s so many thoughts going through my mind. I’m really thankful to my team because they keep staying with me.”
Needing to rally from a set down to beat the American to win the Shenzhen Open to start the year, Sabalenka started this occasion much quicker in Saturday’s final, as she won 5 of the first 6 games before sealing the opener.
She survived a 13-minute 8-deuce game to hold for 1-1 in the second set, but dropped serve in game 6 to hand Riske a 4-2 advantage.
It was all the 29-year-old needed to draw level and force a decider.
After a gritty performance by the World No 35 in the second, where she never faced a break point, withstood 9 aces from Sabalenka, and broke serve in that key 6th game, Riske could not maintain her momentum in the 3rd, as the Belarusian rolled through a streak of games to seal her 4th career WTA title.
Sabalenka broke early in the final set and raced to a 5-0 lead, storming towards the finish line and never facing a break point, before Riske got herself on the board.
It was too little, too late as Sabalenka sealed the deal in an hour, 54-minute victory with her 18th ace of the match.
“She played really well. She’s a great player, big fighter. I knew it’s going to be a tough match,” Sabalenka assessed.
“Third set I came out, like, ‘This is a final, try to do everything you can. Just one match to go, just do your best.’ I was just focusing on my game, focusing on each point. It’s help me to come back in this match.
“[The serve] was really important today because from the baseline she was playing really, really well. Sometimes, my serve helped me a lot, also physically,” she continued.
“I knew it’s going to be a long rally. When ace happen, I’m like, Not this one. But serve is really important. This is my power. I was really happy every time I’m making the ace. At the same time, it brings some double faults. But if it’s 18 aces, maybe it’s okay.”
The World No 14 now has a 29-6 win-loss record in China and heads to Beijing for the China Open, where she faces either Daria Kasatkina or Peng Shuai in her opening match, with a lot of confidence and a steady singles ranking to build heading into next season.