Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka has definitely got her mojo back, making it into the final at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open with an impressive straight sets win over Ashleigh Barty, the top seed, on Friday.
It feels even better than last year... This year it was a really tough season for me. To get back on that level, it feels much more enjoyable. Aryna Sabalenka
It was the Belarusian’s first triumph over a reigning World No 1 and it took her an hour and 43 minutes to come through, 7-5 6-4, improving her career record in Wuhan to 11-0 overall and defeating Barty by a similar scoreline to last year’s semi-final.
“I’m so excited to be in the final, especially here,” said the Belarusian, who will play Petra Kvitova or Alison Riske. “It doesn’t matter who is going to be there, I’ll be there for a fight.”
It was a disappointing outing for Barty, who has reached a final and two semis in Wuhan without winning, and she will hope there are no lasting issues after struggling with discomfort in her left calf in the second set.
The Australian, who was chasing her fourth trophy of 2019, was broken twice in the opening set, clawed back one service break but, despite saving a number of set points, lost the opener.
In the second set, Barty called for her coach, Craig Tyzzer, to discuss a weak leg issue, and then, at his encouragement, had a lengthy medical time-out after at 3-2 up to treat what appeared to be a calf or Achilles problem.
It is unclear how this will affect her prospects at next week’s China Open, where she is again the top seed, but she has a first-round bye.
Later Barty said she was not concerned about her calf injury, but conceded she would need to be vigilant during the tricky final stretch of the season.
“It’s important at this time of the year to listen to your body,” said the 23-year-old Aussie. “There were certain things I wasn’t able to do.”
Barty explained that she felt the injury early in the first set and that it ‘progressively got worse’ as the match wore on.
“I’m sure it’s nothing that is too alarming,” she added.
Nevertheless, Barty fought impressively throughout the match, recovering from 3-1 down in the first set and saving 2 set points, while also earning 2 break points in the 12th game as Sabalenka served for the set.
Yet the No 9 seed would not be denied, converting her 3rd set point and breaking serve in the 9th game of the second before closing out the match with a scorching backhand winner down the line.
Sabalenka converted 3 of the 4 break point chances she created in the match, sealing each set with a late break, and saved 4 of the 5 she faced.
Despite losing an early break advantage in the opener, Sabalenka won the last 3 games to take a one-set lead, and also won the last 3 games of the second set to seal her 3rd career win against the Aussie in 5 meetings.
Efficiency on break points proved key for the Belarusian, who will contest her third final of 2019 against American Alison Riske.
The 21-year-old Belarusian power-hitter proved she is back in top form and well past her earlier slump in the year, firing 24 winners on her way.
The win in Wuhan takes her career record in China to 28-6.
“It means a lot for me,” said Sabalenka.
“It feels even better than last year… This year it was a really tough season for me. To get back on that level, it feels much more enjoyable.”
Looking to become the first player to successfully defend the Wuhan title, and to be the second two-time champion alongside Kvitova, Sabalenka vows to battle until the last ball.
“I’ll be there for the fight. Doesn’t matter who is going to be there in the final,” she said.
Later Barty assured the media: “I’m sure [the injury] is nothing that is too alarming. I tried to do the best that I could to protect it in a way without letting it affect my tennis too much.
“Overall, Aryna was the better player today. She was able to control her service games a lot better. I felt at times I was hanging on a little bit.
“I had to take a lot of risks today, to try to manage where I was at. I was more in the match than I deserved to be.” she admitted.
Later, Alison Riske pulled off a remarkable win over 5th seeded Petra Kvitova in straight sets, having trailed 3-5, 0-40 down in the second to triumph 7-5 7-5.
“I’m just happy to get through… It was a great match from both of us,“ said a delighted Riske in her on-court interview.
Asked about playing Sabalenka in the final, she said: “Yeah, it’s a re-match of Shenzhen earlier in the year. I’m really excited!”
Sabalenka won on that occasion in 3 very tight sets, and again in Rome.
On Friday, Riske withstood the power of 2-time champion Kvitova to move into her first Premier final, continuing her amazing run in China and signalling she has the weapons to combat Sabalenka.
It took her 2 hours and 5 minutes to upset the 5th seed, saving 4 set points in a thrilling climax to the second set.
The American’s previous 8 finals have all come at International level, including her 2nd title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch this June and, in 2019, Riske’s tally of Top 10 wins has now reached 4.
The 29-year-old, fuelled by a snack of dried cranberries in the closing stages, came through a very competitive contest to seal a place in her 3rd final of the year.
For most of the high-octane opening set, there was nothing between them, as they bombarded each other with awesome power.
Both held off break points in their opening service games, Riske saving one as Kvitova ballooned a put-away outside the lines, but the Australian Open finalist bounced back to fight off 6 in an epic 2nd game.
Serve-and-volleying tactics extricated Kvitova from trouble, and she built on that momentum with some sizzling returning to grab the first break, but was immediately broken back as Riske hung in to elicit a series of errors.
The stanza ultimately went down to the wire, with neither player giving an inch to the other, until one loose moment at the worst possible time came from the 2-time Wimbledon champion.
Serving at 5-6, deuce, Kvitova tapped an easy volley into the net to hand Riske a set point, which the World No 35 took with alacrity, swarming to the net herself to thump a drive volley past Kvitova’s desperate defence.
As if to make up for losing the set in such a manner, Kvitova pumped up her level as the second got under way, raising her first serve percentage from 55% to 80%, slamming down a total of 9 aces, and piling the pressure on the Riske delivery to seize the first break for 3-2.
The former World No 2 retained this lead until a dramatic final act to the set of electrifying quality.
With Kvitova’s forehand running rampant, Riske managed to fend off 2 set points serving at 3-5, and then broke back in a thrilling, see-saw 9th game in which both players’ games rose to spectacular heights.
Having built a 0-40 lead, Riske was pegged back by a clutch-serving Kvitova, needing to save a further 2 set points – the last with a marvellous pass – before finally taking her 5th break point.
The depth and pace of the baseline hitting was now drawing gasps from the crowd with almost every rally.
Kvitova tallied 40 winners to 45 unforced errors, but it was Riske who was rock steady with 12 winners to 21 unforced errors.
Throwing everything at the contest in an attempt to punch through her opponent, Kvitova again boldly ventured forwards, only to be undone by a netted volley on Riske’s 2nd match point to close a magnificent contest.
A quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, Riske has now compiled a 24-7 win-loss record since the start of the grass season, including 3 wins from match point down, and has a real chance at her biggest title to date on Saturday.
“I always thought I was good, but I never really kind of embodied that,” Riske said. “In the big moments, I wasn’t really delivering.
“I feel like it’s taken me a while. I had spurts of it. I’m 29, so it’s about time I get something right here.”