Halep, Rybakina Power Their Way To Dubai Final

Simona Halep reaches final in Dubai (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 22, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been a difficult week for former champions at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Just ask defending champion Belinda Bencic and two-time winner Elina Svitolina (2017, 2018). Both lost in the first round earlier this week. One who has escaped defeat is this year’s top seed Simona Halep, the 2015 trophy winner. Not that she didn’t channel Harry Houdini to pull out her second-round victory over Ons Jabeur, requiring a third-set tie-break to decide the outcome in which she saved a match point and won on her fourth match-point opportunity Wednesday evening.

However, on Centre Court Friday night in the Emirates, Halep asserted her dominance in straightforward fashion over the length of her 62-minute semifinal match against American qualifier Jennifer Brady, who found herself in uncharted territory, playing in her first WTA Premier-level semifinal against the former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion from Romania. Halep easily won 6-2, 6-0 to move into her first championship final of both the new year and decade.

It felt much better than previous matches,” Halep said during her post-match press conference. “I played really well. Everything went in my side. I felt the ball great. I feel like I played the best match since I came here.”

The World No. 2 Halep won more than three-quarters of her points on her first serve and saved both of the only two break points she faced. She hit 16 winners to just eight unforced errors. Brady, whose in-form play rewarded her with three straight wins over Top 20 players earlier this week and had strung together six consecutive victories in Dubai (three during the qualifying draw and three more in the main draw), committed 14 unforced errors and could never get on track. Halep outpointed Brady 61-35 and will play on in Saturday’s final while Brady heads off to next week’s WTA Premier event in Doha.

“It’s always a nice opportunity and privilege to play the last match of the tournament,” said Halep, who will face unseeded Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in Saturday evening’s title match (not before 7 p.m.). “I play for another trophy, so I’m relaxed. I’m focused. I really want it.”

Rybakina reaches second straight final

Meanwhile, in the first semifinal, unseeded Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan entered Centre Court at the Aviation Club with a WTA-best 18 wins – including three in her Dubai debut this week – as she aimed for her fourth final of the young 2020 season. Also, as she opposed No. 8 seed Petra Martic of Croatia for the first time, Rybakina came in with a WTA-leading 126 service aces.

Before this year, Martic had never won a main draw match in Dubai, losing in the first round twice (in 2012 and 2019). This week, she’s strung together a series of three wins – beating Hsieh Su-WeiBarbora Strycova and Anett Kontaveit – without nary losing a set in reaching her first semifinal of the season.

As it happened, Rybakina came from a break down in both sets and saved set points in both sets – and accumulated six aces over the course of the two-hour and 12-minute match – to defeat Martic, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2), and reach her second consecutive tour final and fourth overall this season. It was her third Top 15 win in four days.

Neither player distinguished themselves in the early going with very little intensity shown. But after beginning the first set with three straight breaks of serve, Martic saved a break point and held for a 3-1 lead. The next game, an 18-point marathon which extended beyond 10 minutes, included three break-point chances for Martic that she was unable to convert before Rybakina finally held. Martic went ahead 5-3 with a love game on her serve, but squandered a set point in her next service game and was broken.

Rybakina regained her rhythm and went ahead 6-5 as Martic was unable to take advantage of her return opportunities. Then, the Croatian served another love game to force a tiebreaker in what turned out to be a tight opening set. However, it was Rybakina who showed the mental fortitude and shotmaking skills to pull out the tie-break 7-5 and win the 68-minute opener.

While fatigue from her final run in St. Petersburg last week may be finally catching up with the young Kazakh, Rybakina suggested earlier this week that she’s surprised she’s handled her quick turnaround and the transition from indoor to outdoor play so well.

In the second set, Rybakina fought back from down 0-3 and chipped away at Martic’s lead and eventually took the set to another tiebreaker, in which she prevailed after taking a 6-1 lead during the tie-break. Rybakina closed out the match on her second match-point opportunity with a blistering backhand winner.

During her on-court interview following her win, Rybakina was asked where she gets her energy. She giggled for a moment, then answered, “I don’t know. I just want to win.

So tired, but happy! First set, it was not easy because she plays really good. She has really good slices. Her serve, it’s not flat like I played with (Katerina) Pliskova for example. It’s completely different style of game.

“It was not easy to start against her. But I tried to work every point. Second set, I was 3-0 down, but I knew it’s going to be easier to win this set than play a third one. I wanted to win second so much.”

Rybakina credited her serve, in which she won 61 percent of her service points and hit six aces. “Serve helped me today,” she said. “I was fighting every point. I think just fighting.”

Defending champions Hsieh/Strycova reach final

Top seeds and defending Dubai champions Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from Czech Republic entered their match against No. 4 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski from Canada and Zhang Shuai of China attempting to reach their third final in three tournaments this season. They’ve already won at Brisbane and finished runner-up at the Australian Open. On Friday, Hsieh and Strycova won 7-5, 6-3 in one hour and 23 minutes to improve their season win—loss record to 12-1 and advanced to Saturday’s championship and a chance to win Dubai two consecutive years.

“It was a good match,” Strycova said on-court following her team’s win. “I think it was a lot of ups and downs. Both teams were losing, in the second set, our serves. But my partner served it out, which is great, and I’m very happy to be back in the final.”

Meanwhile, Barbora Krejcikova of Czech Republic, who won the Shenzhen Open with Katerina Siniakova is seeking her second final berth with a different partner, China’s Zheng Saisai. The Czech-Chinese pair, who hadn’t played together in  nearly three years, reached the Dubai final with a 6-2, 6-2 win over unseeded Americans Desirae Krawczyk and Alison Riske in 63 minutes.

”We played really smart, we had good communication on court and on the deciding points we played a little better,” said Krejcikova during an on-court interview after the match.

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