DUBAI, February 20, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Calm and confident – and with a power game that is gathering everyone’s attention – Elena Rybakina found her way to match point during her quarterfinal round match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships against World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova after one hour and 41 minutes Thursday afternoon. She didn’t waste a good opportunity. Neither did qualifier Jennifer Brady, who in the next Centre Court quarterfinal match rallied to beat Australian Open finalist Garbiñe Muguruza in three sets. Both Rybakina and Brady have been making headlines by winning this week in Dubai – and deservedly so.
The 19th-ranked Rybakina, Moscow-born but playing under the Kazakhstan flag, promptly put away the Czech star, 7-6 (1), 6-3, to garner a career-best win and first Top Five triumph in her Dubai debut. It came just three days after she defeated Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the first round and less than a week after reaching the final at a WTA Premier indoor tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia. Against Pliskova, Rybakina came from a break down in the opening set and outhit and out-aced the No. 2 seed to move into her fourth semifinal in five tournaments this season.
While losing was an obvious disappointment for the former No. 1 Pliskova, who didn’t bring her best game with her onto the sunny Centre Court in Dubai where she was a finalist in 2015, it was a golden moment for Rybakina. She was clutch when it counted most. The 20-year-old played the big points well – saving 10 of 11 break points while hitting 33 winners that Pliskova was unable to get a racquet upon – and she exuded a level of confidence and maturity well beyond her years.
When Rybakina (pronounced Ree-BACK-in-ah) was asked during her post-match interview on court to describe how big a win it was in her young career, she smiled at the interviewer’s question. Then, in between sips of water and with a towel draped around her shoulders, she said, “It’s really amazing and it means so much. It was so hard for me today. I’m really happy I won.”
In a battle between two of the biggest servers in the women’s game – the Kazakh fired 11 aces to add to her WTA-leading total of 126, while Pliskova, last year’s leader, hit three – Rybakina stressed the importance of establishing a good return game and to try dictating points. “I knew I have to serve good today. I knew also that it’s not going to be long rallies. I was preparing myself just to return. First three balls I had to play, like, really focused. I was trying to do it,” she said.
Then, Rybakina was asked what has been clicking for her this week – what’s going so right for her in her tennis. She didn’t hesitate saying, “I am fighting; I always try to fight. It’s not always easy and I’m trying to enjoy every moment on the court.”
Despite the setback, Pliskova wasn’t too disappointed with results in Dubai and she gave credit to Rybakina. “She played well. I didn’t do that much wrong,” Pliskova said during her interview session with reporters. “Overall, I think I tried to be aggressive which with her is tough because you don’t get that many chances to be aggressive, especially on the returns.
“It was about a couple points. It could go both ways I think. Not every week not making the final is a bad week. For me was not bad week here. A lot of positives. I thought my attitude was great.”
Elena Rybakina advances to the @DDFTennis semifinals!
Defeats No.2 seed Pliskova 7-6(1), 6-3. pic.twitter.com/lsngxAbyqo
— WTA (@WTA) February 20, 2020
While Pliskova will move on and ready for next week’s Premier 5 event in Doha, Rybakina will face No. 8 seed Petra Martic. The World No. 15 from Split, Croatia, reached her first 2020 semifinal with a 7-6 (4), 6-1 win over No. 24 Anett Kontaveit from Estonia. Martic, who wrapped up her quarterfinal win with her second ace, hasn’t dropped a set this week in the Emirates while racking up victories over Hsieh Su-Wei, Barbora Strycova and Kontaveit.
“The season has just started,” said Martic after her match. “Basically, I haven’t played much. I was trying to find my rhythm the first few tournaments. It seems like it worked out here.
“I think these conditions really suit my game well. The ball is bouncing really high. It’s great for my kick serve, for my spin ball. I don’t know why I didn’t play well before, but right now I’m just trying to really just enjoy this tournament.”
Although she’s not faced Rybakina before, Martic is no stranger to Dubai. This is her fourth time playing in the Premier event and she’s compiled a 7-3 win-loss record. Meanwhile, Rybakina is 8-2 in her last 10 matches on hard courts and earlier this week achieved a career-best ranking after being ranked 192nd a year ago.
“I like those kind of different players, like some of big hitters, some of big servers, some are slicing around. It’s fun,” Martic suggested. “It’s going to be a nice challenge, I think. I hope I can cause some damage with my serve, as well. We’ll see who is going to do it better.”
Friday’s Martic-Rybakina semifinal match is scheduled to begin not before 5 p.m. (1 p.m. GMT).
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 20, 2020
Brady’s busy week continues with another Top 20 triumph
It’s been a busy week for Jennifer Brady, but she’s making the most of her opportunities. The unheralded, 24-year-old American secured her third WTA semifinal berth and first in a Premier event with another victory over a Top 20 opponent. On Thursday, the 52nd-ranked Brady, a native of Harrisburg, Pa., defeated No. 9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and nine minutes. It was their first meeting. It added to Brady’s previous triumphs over Top 20 foes Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, who was seeded third, and 17th-ranked Marketa Vondrousova from Czech Republic.
It’s been an amazing run for the overachieving Brady, who reached the Dubai main draw after winning three qualifying draw matches. She has now strung together six straight wins in the Emirates and each one seems more spectacular than the last. She’s spent more than nine hours on court since arriving in Dubai, and on Thursday afternoon, the stadium crowd rewarded her after her latest win with an appreciative round of applause.
When Brady was asked on court after her win how it felt to reach her first Premier-level semifinal, she summed up her feelings in a single word: “Amazing!” Then, after pausing, she added on to her original thought:
“You know, it was a tough match today, I’m really happy to be into the semifinals here,” said Brady, who moved up to No. 46 in the live rankings. When the interviewer suggested that she had started playing “Brady tennis” from the second set on, Brady was asked to describe the meaning of it all. She explained it this way: “I started committing to my shots, playing aggressive. Believing.”
The qualifier defeats Muguruza 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4. pic.twitter.com/uXtC4En0A9
— WTA (@WTA) February 20, 2020
Against the World No. 16 Muguruza, who was attempting to reach consecutive semifinals for the first time since February 2018, Brady simply believed in herself. She recovered nicely after losing the opening set, in which she squandered a 5-2 lead. Then, the 5-foot-10 (1.78 m) Brady started winning many impossible points and her determination didn’t fail her as she recovered and gained momentum. Later, ahead 5-4 in the final set, Brady forcefully hit an off forehand winner that set up a second match point. Then, she watched as Muguruza hit a backhand long that ended the match.
Brady finished off her 11th victory of the season with six aces, hit 22 winners and saved nine of the 10 break points she faced from the former No. 1, who finished with 30 winners and hit 22 unforced errors. She just had the edge that Muguruza never could sustain.
Next, Brady will oppose top seed Simona Halep from Romania, who took charge of her quarterfinal against No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the second set and beat the Belarusian 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 in one hour and 36 minutes. Although Halep hit just 12 winners to offset her 12 unforced errors, she broke Sabalenka’s serve six times in eight opportunities, including in the pivotal fourth games of both the second and third sets. With the service breaks piling up, perhaps, it broke Sabalenka’s spirt a little bit, too, during their one hour and 36 minute match played in 28ºC temperatures that left both players working up quite a sweat.
While Halep was ripe for an upset against 45th-ranked wild card Ons Jabeur the night before, this time on Thursday night, once Halep got on track after losing the first set, there really wasn’t any way to stop her. By the third set she didn’t face any break points on her serve while landing 71 percent of her first serves in play.
“I think I started to play a little bit stronger in the second set and find rhythm,” Halep explained during her post-match interview on court. “It’s always tough to play against her because she’s very strong and hits the ball really, really hard. So, I had to play faster, be quicker on court and give everything I had to win.”
Halep avenged a quarterfinal loss from earlier this season in Adelaide against Sabalenka, where she recalled she couldn’t “touch the ball that much.” This time, however, the Romanian achieved a different result. “Always, it’s tough against her because she’s a little bit taller than me and she has a lot of power. I just had to block some balls, and to get the initiative to go and open the court.”
Friday’s featured evening semifinal between Brady and Halep will start not before 7 p.m. (3 p.m. GMT).
Defeats Sabalenka 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. pic.twitter.com/Re3ZzE4T7c
— WTA (@WTA) February 20, 2020
Three seeded doubles teams remain
Top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from Czech Republic, the top two-ranked doubles players in the WTA, reached the Dubai semifinals with an easy 6-3, 6-0 win over unseeded Sofia Kenin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, both from the United States. They will face No. 4 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski from Canada and Zhang Shuai of China, who advanced over twin sisters Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadiia Kichenok, both of Poland, 6-2, 6-4.
The other semifinal will pair No. 5 seeds Barbora Krejcikova of Czech Republic and Zheng Saisai from China against unseeded Americans Desirae Krawczyk and Alison Riske. Krejcikova and Zheng upset No. 3 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Xu Yifan from China, 6-4, 5-7, 13-11, while Krawczyk and Riske beat unseeded Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani from Brazil, 6-3, 4-6, 10-6.
What they’re saying
— WTA (@WTA) February 20, 2020