SHENZHEN, January 4, 2019
Twenty-year-old Belarusian rising star Aryna Sabalenka has made her first semifinal of the new season after fifth seed Maria Sharapova retired from their quarterfinal duel midway through the second set, with the score standing at 6-1, 4-2 after one hour and 20 minutes on Centre Court.
Former world No.1 Sharapova struggled to find any rhythm against an aggressive and determined world No.13 Sabalenka in the first set, as she racked up the unforced errors with long forehands and net shots.
After taking a medical timeout at the end of the first set, the Russian began to play more aggressively and got her first break of the match in the fourth game of the second set to cancel out Sabalenka’s break in the third and tie the set at 2-2, giving her vociferous fans in the stadium some hope.
However, it was becoming clear that Sharapova’s mobility was not at 100% and after Sabalenka took the next two games, the 31-year-old decided to pull out of the match, later citing a left thigh injury.
“I’m so sorry for Sharapova, hopefully she will get better soon. I think we played great tennis today. I’m happy (with my performances so far). After pre-season, nobody knows how it will go, so I’m happy with the start of this season,” said the Belarus No.1.
Sharapova, who is still struggling to find her form and physical peak after returning to competition in April 2017, paid tribute to her Chinese fans after the match.
“I have some of the best fans in China – ‘Shara Family’ China they call themselves. There’s quite a few of them and I was able to see them all around the world. I am very thankful for their support, definitely. I couldn’t finish the match. I have felt my legs for a couple of days and at one particular point I felt a burn and just decided the smarter choice would be to evaluate it and see how it goes next week,” said Sharapova after the match.
Sabalenka will play world No.70 Wang Yafan for the first time on tour in tomorrow’s semifinal, after the Chinese showed great form and resilience to overturn a one-set deficit and defeat Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 in two hours and twenty minutes.
Strongly backed by an enthusiastic local crowd, the Nanjing native twice battled back from going a break down in the second set to force a tie break, in which she went 0-2 down but took the next six points on the trot to amass four set points, of which she converted the third.
As the Romanian began to cut a frustrated figure on court, Wang, who is at a career high ranking, grew in confidence and raced to a 5-0 lead, which included saving five break points in the fifth game to hold serve. She completed the win with a powerful forehand smash at the net in the seventh game.
“I’m very happy to be in the semifinals for the first time in Shenzhen. I will try to play my best tennis in the next match,” said the 24-year-old.
As the sole Chinese singles player left in the draw, Wang will surely have the support of locals as she attempts to make her first WTA Tour level final appearance, having lost in both her previous semifinal appearances (Guangzhou ’14, Nanchang ’17).
American Alison Riske stayed on course to make her third final in four years of competing in Shenzhen, as she rallied from going a break down twice in the first set to complete a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in one hour and 40 minutes.
The quarterfinal tie was abandoned yesterday after the first two games were both won by Cirstea, including a break against Riske in the second game, and it seemed the momentum was going to continue with the Romanian today when she broke Riske for the second time in the eighth game to go 5-3 up.
However, the 28-year-old American turned the tide by taking the next six games on the trot and not facing a single break point in the second set to make her first WTA Tour hard court semifinal since Shenzhen two years ago.
“Honestly, it feels amazing. Yesterday was really tough, especially knowing I was down 0-2 with a chance of going 0-3. But I knew if I could bring my level up to where I’m used to playing, I would have a good chance. She’s a great competitor, someone I know well on and off the court, and I’m proud I was able to deliver today and I’m looking forward to living to see another day,” said Riske after her match.
Veteran Russian Vera Zvonareva has justified her wild card entry into the main draw with a battling performance on Centre Court to overturn a one set deficit from yesterday’s rain interrupted match to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 against compatriot Veronika Kudermetova, who was one of two qualifiers that made the quarterfinals.
The 34-year-old world No.109, who is set to break into the Top 100 for the first time since January 2013 after today’s victory, notched five breaks in 14 opportunities and saved seven break points out of ten against her young opponent to make her second semifinal (Tashkent ’17) since her return to tour from maternity break two years ago.
The match featured a tense mammoth final game in which 21 points were contested – Kudermetova saved six match points and Zvonareva saved four game points before finally securing her second consecutive win against a 21-year-old.
“I don’t really think about the age, as long as I’m enjoying my time and I’m competing. I feel fit and I feel confident on the court and I was just trying to play the best tennis I can. She’s a great player and it was a tough fight, especially at the end. It was a very difficult game to finish the match but I managed it well and I’m really happy with the win,” said the Russian.
In tomorrow’s semifinal clash, Riske will face Zvonareva for the first time on tour since Monterrey ’15, where the Russian defeated the American in straight sets in the first round. Their only other meeting came on the grass courts of Wimbledon in 2011, also won by Zvonareva.