Svitolina Battles Rain, Sabalenka To Reach Strasbourg Final

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

When rain suspended Thursday’s Internationaux de Strasbourg quarterfinal match between No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Katerina Siniakova from the Czech Republic, it meant that whomever won when they resumed play on Friday morning at the Strasbourg Tennis Club would need to come back later in the day to play their semifinal match against No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, who would be well rested.

It turned out to be Sabalenka, who invested a total of two hours and 26 minutes over two days to beat the unseeded Siniakova, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, to advance on in the Alsace region of northeastern France.

Although Sabalenka was plenty warmed up by the time she faced Svitolina to determine who would oppose fifth seed Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan, the winner of an earlier semifinal, in Saturday’s championship match, perhaps, she had run out of mental and physical energy by the end of her one-hour and 54-minute clash against Svitolina.

In the end, it was Svitolina’s consistency that enabled her to withstand Sabalenka’s raw power that the Belarusian exerted with every forehand return en route to pulling out a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 semifinal victory. It’s why Svitolina – not Sabalenka – will oppose Rybakina in Saturday’s 11 a.m. final on clay.

Wet, chilly conditions permeate Patrice Dominguez

The Sabalenka-Siniakova quarterfinal resumed just before noon under wet and chilly 13C-degree conditions, with Siniakova ahead 6-2, 1-2. Both players arrived on the Patrice Dominguez show court attired in long sleeves to battle the weather.

Sabalenka, who was looking to reach her second straight Strasbourg semifinal, broke to maintain her lead in the second set and held for a 4-1 advantage. Then, she earned a break point in the sixth game, which Siniakova saved on her way to holding serve. The Czech broke in the next game to get back on serve. But it was short-lived as Sabalenka broke Siniakova, again, for the third time in the set and served it out to level the match.

Soon after, the match was suspended, again, by rain. The players left the court before returning after a 30-minute delay. On serve at 2-1, Siniakova broke to go ahead 3-1. However, a spirited Sabalenka broke back and held for 3-all after saving a break point enduring a 14-point marathon game. She broke Siniakova in the next game for the fifth time in the match. Following a medical timeout, in which Siniakova’s left thigh was administered to, Sabalenka held with her third ace to lead 5-3. She closed out the match with another service break to move into the semifinal round.

“It was a tough two days,” Sabalenka said after coming off the court. “After yesterday’s first set, I tried to not think about the match [last night]; I spoke to my family, watched some movies. I prepared myself for a tough match and [Siniakova] played well. I’m happy I could stay in the match.”

Looking ahead to the semifinal, Sabalenka said, “I have to prepare myself mentally to be ready for long rallies. I’ll try to not rush or panic, just enjoy the game and my time.”

Rybakina advances with WTA-best 28th victory

With the semifinal pairings now set, Friday’s first semifinal featured Japan’s 84th-ranked Nao Hibino, whose run to the final four has been the surprise of this week, against Rybakina. Hibino, who confessed during her earlier virtual media interviews that clay wasn’t her favorite surface, came in looking to reach a sixth career WTA singles final – and first on clay. It would be their second meeting and first since Rybakina beat Hibino on clay last year at Roland Garros, 7-5, 7-5. Although Rybakina would beat Hibino, again, on Friday, this time it was just as difficult as the first, as the 6-3, 6-4 score attests. The match lasted one hour and 16 minutes, well under Rybakina’s one hour and 28-minute average this week.

Rybakina, who leads the WTA Tour with 28 victories this season, was attempting to reach her fifth final of 2020 and first since the tour’s restart last month. She hadn’t dropped a set following wins over Greet Minnen, Alizé Cornet and Zhang Shuai and her average court time of one hour and 28 minutes was the least among the four semifinalists.

“The conditions were tough today,” said Rybakina. “The balls felt different; they were heavier. It was not easy to move on the court. I was lucky to play in two sets.”

Meanwhile, Hibino, who had strung together three wins over higher-ranked players, was looking to beat her second seeded player in the tournament. In the opening set, though, Rybakina saved some break points early. Then, she broke to take a 4-2 lead and consolidated it with her second of five aces on the match for a 5-2 lead. One game later, she closed out the 38-minute set with a forehand return that Hibino netted.

As the second set unfolded, Rybakina broke at love and jumped out to a 3-1 lead. She maintained that advantage at 5-3 with a forehand winner, needing one more hold or break of Hibino’s serve to close out the semifinal. At 5-4, Rybakina set up a match point at 40-30 and converted it when Hibino hit a wide return that capped a nine-shot rally.

After it was over, Rybakina credited her serve in her victory over Hibino. “I was serving good, some double faults, but the important ones I was very good,” she said during her virtual media interview. “We had some tough rallies but I guess I was better today.”

Hibino agreed with Rybakina’s assessment and called her opponent’s serve it a difference-making weapon.

“It was very tough to return her serve because her serves bounce so high – above my shoulders – so it was difficult,” said Hibino, wiping away the tears as she tried to compose her thoughts. There will be better days ahead for this 25-year-old native of Aichi, Japan. She’s drawn a qualifier in the first round of the French Open and could oppose No. 76 Marina Diyas of Kazakhstan, whom she beat earlier this week in Strasbourg, in the second round. For now, though, her thoughts were on what she felt slipped away from her.

Rybakina won 78 percent of her first-serve points, saved all three break points and broke Hibino twice in four tries. The 21-year-old rising Kazakh star hit 20 winners to 22 unforced errors in advancing to her WTA-leading fifth final of the year.

“I’m happy about this week,” said Rybakina. “I think I am playing better and better. My serve also is getting better, which helps me a lot.”

Svitolina reaches final with a nail-biting win

Meanwhile, the World No. 5 Svitolina arrived for her Top 20 semifinal against the World No. 12 Sabalenka with an impressive 4-1 win-loss record on clay since returning from the tour’s five-month tour hiatus and brought a clean slate with her, thanks to a pair of straight-set wins against No. 36 Magda Linette and No. 54 Jil Teichmann. Svitolina matched her consistency against Sabalenka’s raw power. In the end, after one hour and 54 minutes – plus a lengthy delay that occurred just 11 minutes into the match – Svitolina’s consistency, plus her ability to adapt to the changing circumstances, lifted her past the finish line after three challenging sets and into her second final of the season.

“Each match, I’m playing better and better,” said Svitolina, who heads into her final against Rybakina with a 14-6 win-loss record (including five wins on clay). “I played some good matches against top players, in Rome as well. I have the final tomorrow, so it’s important for me to take very match and move forward from there.”

While Svitolina has never faced Rybakina, she will be playing against an opponent who is match tough, with 28 singles victories that leads the WTA. However, Svitolina knows a thing or two about playing in finals. That’s because she’s 14-3 lifetime in WTA singles finals.

On serve following an exchange of early service breaks – and after waiting out a 45-minute rain delay that interrupted play after just one game – Svitolina broke Sabalenka’s serve to go ahead 4-2. It was a promising start to the match. Then, she held and broke Sabalenka for the third time to win the 39-minute set. Svitolina had five winners and seven unforced errors, while Sabalenka’s high risk-high reward play earned her 12 winners and 13 unforced errors.

In the second set, at 3-all, Sabalenka broke to go ahead and fought off a break-point against her to win a 10-point game and hold for a 5-3 advantage. She began hitting the lines with her powerful forehand returns and pinned Svitolina into both forehand and backhand corners. Ahead 5-4, Sabalenka served out the set at 15 and the second semifinal of the day was headed to a decider.

“[Sabalenka] was taking more risks,” Svitolina said, “because when you are a set down, you are looking for some ways to try to win. She played great in the game she broke me.”

In the third set, Svitolina got an early break to go ahead 2-0 and consolidated it for a 3-0 advantage. Now, she needed to win just three more games to advance to Saturday’s final. Ever the fighter, Sabalenka battled for every point and hit a demonstrative forehand winner at 30-40 to get the break back. Then, she held at love with a backhand winner that Svitolina was unable to get a racquet on. After Svitolina held for 4-3, she broke Sabalenka to surge ahead 5-3. The momentum had shifted, or had it? Not to be denied, Sabalenka fought back and broke with a half-volley winner at the net that capped a 17-shot baseline-to-baseline rally to get back on serve.

“I knew that I had to fight, maybe play a little bit deeper, to try to be aggressive,” Svitolina said. “I think that worked well in the third set when I got the lead.”

With three game points to tie, though, Sabalenka committed her seventh and eighth double faults. Then, she hit an unforced error that brought the game score to deuce. Next, Svitolina reached match point when Sabalenka hit a backhand long. Finally, Svitolina won the hard-fought, back-and-forth match when Sabalenka committed her third double fault of the game and ninth overall.

“I think it was just fight spirit in the end,” Svitolina said. “I was just trying to be really strong, and I got a few unforced errors from Aryna, and I think I was fighting until the end, even at 0-40 down.”

While it might have been an anticlimactic finish to a highly dramatic match, it was nevertheless a victory for Svitolina and she’s into her second final of the season and first since Monterrey before pandemic times stopped the tennis season.

“I’m looking forward to the final,” Svitolina said. “Every final is special to me, and I have just excitement, I would say.”

Melichar/Schuurs advance to Strasbourg doubles final

Top seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands advanced to Saturday’s final with a 6-2, 7-6 (3) win over Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both from Japan. The Japanese pair, who were bidding to reach their fifth final of the year – their first four came on hard courts – saved three match points to level the second set at 5-all. However, Melichar and Schuurs won the set and match in a tiebreak, converting on their fifth match-point opportunity. They will face No. 4 seeds Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani from Brazil for the championship.

What they’re saying in Strasbourg

• Elena Rybakina, who will be seeded 14th in her second French Open appearance next week, drew Sorana Cirstea as her first-round opponent at Roland Garros. She’s in Sofia Kenin‘s quarter and the bottom half of the draw. “I’m looking forward [to the French Open] and will take it match-by-match.” If Rybakina beats Cirstea, she could face Palermo titlist Fiona Ferro in the second round, 22nd seed Karolina Muchova in the third round and No. 3 seed Kenin in the round of 16. 

“It’s going to be tough – I’ve played [Sorana] once in Doha (earlier this year, won by Rybakina in three sets) – but I’m not thinking about that match yet because I am still playing here [in Strasbourg]. After the tournament, of course, I will focus on that match.”

• Elina Svitolina, on her week’s journey to the final in Strasbourg – her second tournament since the WTA restart – and her second final of 2020: “Winning titles is something that you always want to do when you enter the tournament. Every final is special, and you try to give everything that you have to have that trophy.”

Saturday’s final moved up to 11 a.m.

Because of expected inclement weather, Saturday’s singles final between Elina Svitolina and Elena Rybakina has been moved up to 11 a.m. It will be followed by the doubles final. Trophy ceremonies are scheduled following each final.