Sabalenka Keeps Eye On Prize, Reaches Second Straight Stuttgart Final

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix)

STUTTGART/WASHINGTON, April 23, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

All week long, Aryna Sabalenka has kept an eye on the grand prize at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. The grand prize, visibly on display behind the baseline inside Porsche Arena to both players and fan, alike, happens to be a bright red Porsche Taycan GTS Sport Turismo. It along with $68,570 in prize money and 470 WTA Rankings points goes to the winner of the WTA 500 indoor clay event taking place in the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state.

Saturday afternoon, on the indoor red clay, the World No. 4 Sabalenka from Belarus reached her second straight Stuttgart final with a 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over her friend and doubles partner, World No. 3 Paula Badosa of Spain. Sabalenka rallied from 0-3 down to win an opening set tie-break 7-5. Then, through nine games in the second set, two straight double faults enabled the Belarusian to break Badosa in the 10th game to close out the semifinal victory in straight sets.

“It was a tough match and I was facing a tough opponent,” Sabalenka said during her on-court interview. The No. 3 seed trailed 2-5 before winning four of the next five games to gain a tie-break. “I just tried to stay in the set as long as I could and to fight for every point and get the break back. I was lucky; I got it.”

It was the first meeting of 2022 between two Top 5 players and it was Sabalenka’s first victory against Badosa in three tries. Next, she will face World No. 1 and top seed Iga Swiatek of Poland, who rallied to beat unseeded No. 31 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, in Sunday afternoon’s title match.

Sabalenka, who gained her 18th victory against a Top-10 opponent with her victory against Badosa, wrapped up the one-hour and 40-minute match by firing nine aces and hitting 33 winners to 26 unforced errors. She broke Badosa’s serve three times in six tries and outpointed her opponent 77-67. Badosa finished with 16 winners and 13 unforced errors. She converted two of eight break points.

Looking back, a turning point in the match came during the first-set tie-break, when Sabalenka served her fourth ace that gave her a set point. She would go on to win the next point – and the set – on an unforced error by Badosa.

“Honestly, you have to risk it and just go for it,” Sabalenka admitted. “I didn’t go for the ace. I just wanted to get it in. Somehow, I made an ace.

“I know if I trust my game and stay aggressive and risk, sometimes, I can control much more. I feel better that way.”

Despite the loss, which was only her seventh in 28 matches this season, Badosa will rise to No. 2 in the WTA Rankings on Monday. She heads to Madrid, the next Tour stop, with a 4-2 win-loss record on clay this season after leading the WTA with a 17-3 mark on clay last year.

As for Sabalenka, it means that she’s successfully defended her finalist points from reaching the 2021 Stuttgart final, where she lost to former No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. She’s into her first final since Madrid a year ago and tomorrow will be going after her 11th WTA Tour singles title in her 16th final. She’s 10-5 in WTA Tour singles finals.

Reminded that she lost 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 to Barty in last year’s final, Sabalenka admitted, “It wasn’t good enough. Maybe I could risk a little bit more.”

Don’t bet against it – especially when there’s Porsche automobile at stake to the winner.

Swiatek comes from behind to win 22nd straight

In the second semifinal, World No. 1 and top seed Iga Swiatek of Poland, riding high on a 21-match winning streak, needed to find the right solutions to win her 22nd straight match. She rallied from a set down to defeat unseeded No. 31 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5, that lasted a lengthy three hours and three minutes. It improved Swiatek’s win-loss record this season to 29-3, best in the WTA.

Swiatek, a winner of three straight WTA 1000 titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami before arriving in Stuttgart, raced to a 3-0 lead, sandwiching a break around two solid service holds against Samsonova. The Russian, who won her first WTA title on grass last summer in Berlin as a 106th-ranked qualifier, came into the semifinal after earlier recording her first Top-10 win, against World No. 7  Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic.

However, Samsonova got the break back in the seventh game when chair umpire Kader Nouni ruled a line mark in her favor. Then, she saved four break points in a four-deuce eighth game to level the set at 4-all. Later, Swiatek saved a break point to hold for 6-5 and Samsonova responded with a hold of her own at 15 to force a first-set tie-break.

In the tie-break, Samsonova jumped out to a 3-0 advantage with a break on the first point, then served it out to win 7-4 in 71 minutes. It broke a streak of 28 straight sets won by Swiatek.

Samsonova hit 14 winners and despite making 32 unforced errors, played level with Swiatek, who made an equal number of unforced errors. She also won 11 of 16 second-serve points on Swiatek’s serve. Samsonova outpointed Swiatek 53-50.

In the second set, Samsonova saved four break points during an 18-point six-deuce game third game that lasted 10 minutes to hold for 2-1. Later, on serve at 4-all, Swiatek broke after Samsonova netted a third-shot forehand as the semifinal reached the two-hour mark. Swiatek consolidated the break with a love hold to win 6-4 and to put herself into a decider.

As the third set unfolded, there were three consecutive breaks of serve that gave Swiatek a 2-1 lead. She consolidated the second break for a 3-1 lead. However, Samsonova broke back in the sixth game after Swiatek hit a fifth-shot forehand long. After a pair of holds that advanced the set score to 4-all, both players dug in to the slippery clay and gave it their all.

After Samsonova held for 5-4 – needing one more game to pull off the upset of the tournament and, arguably, the season – Swiatek responded with a hold of her own punctuated by a solid backhand winner. Then, Swiatek gained a break point at 30-40 in the next game and converted it after Samonova swatted a backhand wide left. Swiatek jumped up and pumped her right fist in the air. It gave Swiatek a 6-5 lead with the match on her racquet, needing to hold serve once more – and hold Swiatek did.

At 15-all, Swiatek won the final three points of the match to put away the victory on her first match-point opportunity after Samsonova punched a fourth-shot backhand wide. It prompted Swiatek to jump up and down on Center Court in celebration, first with fists pumping and later blowing kisses to the Porsche Arena crowd.

“It was tough, you know,” Swiatek said during her on-court interview. “We had a lot of ups and downs. It was like a marathon. I’m pretty happy that at the end I was consistent and could play solid. I played fearlessly. All credit to [Liudmila] because she had a great run and is playing great tennis.” 

By the end, the two combatants had played a total of 34 games and Swiatek was ahead on points 130-120. There were a combined eight breaks of serve – five converted by Swiatek and three by Samsonova.

Now, Swiatek, who is 6-0 this year when she loses the first set and forces a decider – and is 8-1 in three-setters – is through to her fourth straight WTA title match and the winning streak lives on for another day.

Krawczyk and Schuurs reach doubles final

No. 2 seeds Desirae Krawczyk of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands fought off the challenge of unseeded Cristina Bucsa of Spain and Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia to win 7-6 (4), 1-6, 10-7, and advance to Sunday’s doubles final. Krawczyk’s forehand winner capped a six-shot rally and wrapped up the victory in a match tie-break at the conclusion of the one-hour and 33-minute match.

The American/Dutch duo – Schuurs is ranked 19th and Krawczyk 21st – began playing together last month at Indian Wells and have gone 5-3, including 3-0 this week in Stuttgart. They combined to hit 18 winners, made 26 unforced errors and converted two of 10 break-point chances. Bucsa and Zidansek countered with 33 winners but hit 37 unforced errors. They broke their opponents five times in six tries and outpointed Krawczyk and Schuurs 68-67.

“We click off court and I think that’s something you take with you on court,” Schuurs said in an on-court interview following the win. “I think Desirae is very good from the back and she can set me up at the net. That’s our strength.”

In the final, Krawczyk and Schuurs will face No. 1 seeds Coco Gauff of the United States and Zhang Shuai of China. Gauff and Zhang defeated No. 4 seeds Shuko Aoyama of Japan and Chan Hao-Ching of Taiwan, 6-2, 6-3, in 64 minutes. The American/Chinese pair combined to hit four aces and 20 winners. They outscored their opponents 59-39.

Asked if they were going to go all the way and win the title, Krawczyk exclaimed: “We’re going to try our best!”

Saturday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix results

Sunday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix order of play

By the numbers

• Saturday was Paula Badosa‘s sixth career clay-court semifinal appearance and 11th semifinal overall. Since the start of 2018, she’s tied with Simona Halep and Aryna Sabalenka for most clay-court semifinal appearances with six.

Iga Swiatek, who came into Saturday’s play with a 21-match winning streak, is the third youngest player to win 20-plus matches since 2000. She trails only Venus Williams (35 wins in 2000) and Serena Williams (21 wins in 2002).

“Quotable …”

“It was a goal and I really wanted to be in that position. For me, it’s a dream come true so I was really going after it. So, I’m really happy that today I could do it and I could leave that mental block out of it from the match and I could play pretty well. I think I played a high-level match.”

– World No. 3 Paula Badosa of Spain, describing the feeling of ascending to World No. 2 in the rankings next week, in conversation with the WTA Insider.