Kudermetova, Sabalenka Win With Power and Enjoyment

Veronica Kudermetova (photo: @WTA_insider/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Blink your eyes and you might have missed a brilliant semifinal performance given by Aryna Sabalenka Tuesday afternoon against Maria Sakkari in Abu Dhabi. It was complete, filled with just the right mixture of power and aggression – and enjoyment, too – and it ended quickly.

The World No. 10 Sabalenka was thoroughly dominant in winning her career-best 14th straight match dating back to last season. The Belarusian’s 6-3, 6-2 victory over the No. 22 Sakkari lasted only 61 minutes, finished with a pair of sizzling aces that propelled her into her third straight championship final and first of the 2021 season.

On Wednesday, the fourth-seeded Sabalenka will oppose No. 46 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia as she goes after her 15th straight victory and third consecutive WTA title to go along with the crowns she won in Ostrava and Linz at the end of the 2020 WTA season. The Abu Dhabi title match will be Sabalenka’s 13th WTA career singles final. She’s 8-4 in her first dozen and hungry for more. Her opponent, Kudermetova, will be playing in her first WTA final.

“I think I’ve put my focus in the right space,” Sabalenka said during her virtual news conference afterward. Not to be forgotten is this: Sabalenka has won 10 straight matches in the Middle East region, which include five en route to winning her Doha title early last year. “I’m focusing on the right things; this helps me not think about all these wins, and so it helps me to keep winning. I think I need to keep concentrating on my game and my movement on court, and to do everything I can in the moment. It’s been working really well for me.”

Just how dominant was Sabalenka in the beginning, during what turned into a fourth straight conquest of Sakkari in five meetings? Well, consider this: she won 12 of 13 points to opening the match, then jumped ahead 3-0 after just 10 minutes. It left Sakkari stunned and frustrated, but still determined to fight. Soon, Sabalenka increased her first-set lead to 5-1.

By the end of the 28-minute opener, Sabalenka had connected successfully on 75 percent of her first serves and won 31 of 46 points that were played. She also won eight of nine return points and hit nine winners. It was the start of something very big and very good. The only blemish to an otherwise marvelous first set came when Sabalenka was broken by Sakkari in the seventh game, but the World No. 10 kept her emotions under control and her focus toward keeping constant pressure on her opponent, attacking the rising Greek star’s second serve.

Then, on serve through the first three games of the second set, with Sakkari leading 2-1, Sabalenka went to work. Game by game, she reeled off five straight to close out the semifinal triumph on a winning note.

“I think, first of all, we cannot take from her the fact she played lights-out tennis,” Sakkari told Tennis TourTalk after the match. “She gave me zero chances to come back. I just couldn’t find a way. From the baseline she was dictating, playing really big and super strong. I have to give that to her. Maybe, I could have served a little better. I think I was rushing too much, because I was also trying to play big. It didn’t work with her.”

Looking back, Sabalenka hit three times as many winners as unforced errors – 22 to 8 – and outpointed her opponent 62-33. Sakkari finished with just 12 winners and committed 21 unforced errors.

“I like to play against her,” Sabalenka told Tennis TourTalk. “I think I’m just putting pressure on her every match we’re playing against each other, and it’s helped me win all those matches.”

Kudermetova gains first WTA singles final

In the end, Veronika Kudermetova played the big points of her Abu Dhabi semifinal against 18-year-old Marta Kostyuk better. The two unseeded big hitters put on a groundstroke battle for one hour and 40 minutes that revealed each player’s athleticism. Although it took the No. 46 Russian native five – sometimes agonizing – match points to secure her 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory over Kostyuk from Ukraine, it proved to be entertaining tennis from these two future stars. Now, Kudermetova has advanced to her first WTA singles final.

“I think it was a really tough match today,” the 23-year-old Kudermetova smiled as she spoke to Tennis TourTalk during her post-match virtual interview with reporters. “I think we were not playing very well; we were a little bit nervous. It was really tough, but I tried to be focused until the end.

“Sometimes, I just try to push to the ball to the court. It’s not easy at all mentally to play in the semifinals … but I tried to fight to the end.”

A day after unleashing 50 winners in her 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3) upset of the tournament’s No. 2 seed, World No. 5 Elina Svitolina, Kudermetova hit 21 winners and 28 unforced errors while Kostyuk finished with 22 winners and 31 unforced errors. There were nine breaks of service between them. Surprisingly, only three total points (79-76 favoring Kutermetova) separated the two upcoming talents.

Although Kudermetova is just five years older than Kostyuk, she credited her experience from going 0-for-4 in previous semifinals with lifting her into Wednesday’s final against World No. 10 Aryna Sabalenka.

“I think I have a little bit more experience than Marta,” she said. “She’s really young, she’s 18. Today, I think it was the key because I really have a little bit more experience than her.”

After holding her own against more experienced players like Hsieh Su-Wei and Sara Sorribes Tormo earlier in the draw, Kostyk was disappointed with her result against Kudermetova but remained upbeat during her virtual chat with reporters.

“Obviously, it’s a little disappointing to end like this because this match was pretty close,” said Kostyk, who will head to Australia with a 4-1 record and the knowledge she can compete on the WTA main tour. She said she will practice during the first week of quarantine with Spain’s Paula Badosa, whom Kudermetova beat in the round of 16 in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Looking ahead to the final, Kudermetova said she plans to approach it free of any expectations. Instead, she will try to enjoy the moment on court with Sabalenka – win or lose.

“We’re friendly and I think it’s a really interesting and fun match tomorrow,” Kudermetova said. “From my side, I don’t have any expectations, because Aryna, she is a Top 10 player; she plays unbelievable. She’s played really good here.

“I think she’ll have a little bit more pressure than me because she’s supposed to win tomorrow. She’s stayed Top 10; she’s already won two tournaments in a row. I think tomorrow, I’ll play free. I’ll try to play relaxed and try to enjoy my final.”

Aoyama/Shibahara reach doubles final

Fifth seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both of Japan, reached their first final since winning St. Petersburg en route to a 17-10 win-loss record last year. They defeated Sofian Kenin of the United States and Ajla Tomljanovic from Australia, 6-4, 6-3, to set up a title match on Wednesday against No. 8 seeds Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani from Brazil. Carter and Stefani advanced over Laura Siegemund of Germany and Vera Zvonareva from Russia, 7-5, 1-6, 10-8.

Aoyama and Shibahara knocked off the No. 1 seeds Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Krejcikova from Czech Republic earlier this week in the quarterfinal round.

What they’re saying

• While much is being written about Aryna Sabalenka’s current 14 match winning streak – currently, the longest in the WTA – she was asked in good fun by a reporter during her virtual media chat Tuesday if she knew anything about the longest WTA winning streak. “No, I don’t know actually,” said the 22-year-old Sabalenka. “Seventy-four matches by [Martina] Navratilova,” she was told. “Do you think you can get there?” asked the reporter in a follow-up question. “Ha ha ha ha,” Sabalenka responded, laughing at the Herculean feat, her face beaming a big smile. “Well, I know it’s a really unbelievable number. Of course, I would like to go this far. I’m going to do everything I can keep winning. We’ll see …”

For the record, Navratilova set the standard back in 1984 – or 14 years before Sabalenka was born. The longest winning streak at the start of a season? That number is 45, set by Steffi Graf in 1987.

• During her virtual news conference, Veronika Kudermetova revealed this interesting nugget: Her tennis idol was Maria Sharapova, while her overall inspiration is Russian former mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tennis fans, of course, are very familiar with Sharapova. As for Nurmagomedov? He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA) history. The things reporters learn through virtual press conferences!