Svetlana Kuznetsova’s dream of a first Qatar Total Open title was cut short by a fierce young Belarusian, who refers to herself as “The Tiger” and whose all-or-nothing attitude on court and cheery disposition off it have already won her many admirers.
Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 13, swept past Kuznetsova, whose third semi-final appearance in Doha ended somewhat anticlimactically on a pleasant evening at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex thereby robbing the tournament of its sentimental favourite.
The Belarusian, who sports a tiger tattoo on her arm, will now meet Petra Kvitova in the final after the Czech two-times Wimbledon champion upset World No 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia 6-4, 2-6, 6-4.
“I’m really happy to be in the final here, especially because I come here first time and made it until the final. It’s really nice and I’m really happy with the level I’m playing right now and well, we’ll see what’s going to happen tomorrow, but for sure I will bring everything I have,” said Sabalenka, 21, after her 6-4, 6-3 victory in an hour and 17 minutes.
She added that the relatively calmer conditions last evening made her life easy on court.
“Yeah, last two days was crazy wind and today it still was some wind, but it was much better. After yesterday it feels like it’s no wind at all, added Sabalenka, who has won five titles so far and has now bested Kuznetsova in three of the five matches they have played against each other.
“It was great match, I expect really great level from her and she played really well and it was not easy. And, well, I’m happy with the level I showed today and that I could stay calm,” added Sabalenka.
Kuznetsova, on the other hand, admitted she was simply not up to the task.
“I was a little bit slower and I didn’t serve so well. She played unbelievable today and I was not at my best, she was just better. And it’s a game but I just have to be more consistent in the game.”
The nearly six-foot tall and 80-kilo Sabalenka is known for her ability to hit winners at will, but on the flip side she also concedes lots of points by way of unforced errors, making her something of a statistical delight.
When she beat Karolina Pliskova in 2018 for her first career win over a top-10 player, she hit 40 winners, which were aptly matched by a whopping 39 unforced errors. Her second top-10 victory came against Caroline Wozniacki, during the course of which blasted 64 winners, accompanied by a mindboggling 54 unforced errors.
However, the power and never-say-attitude she brings into her game have earned her many accolades, most notably from former US player Mary Carillo, who won the mixed doubles title with John McEnroe at the French Open in 1977 but had her career cut short by injury.
Carillo, now a well-respected media pundit, called her the “Warrior Princess” and described her game as “big babe tennis personified,” although since then Sabalenka has toned down her aggression a wee bit and learned to select her shots more wisely.
That was the case yesterday as she put in a dominating performance, although the first set was still a tricky affair with the players trading breaks twice each from games two to five.
There was everything to play for as they were locked 4-all after eight games, but the Belarusian put pressure on her rival by holding serve in the ninth game and putting the ball in the Russian’s court , as it were, to make a fight of it.
But despite her enormous experience, Kuznetsova inexplicably succumbed to the pressure. Three unforced errors saw her go 0-40 down and Sabalenka finished it off with a blistering down-the-line forehand to grab a distinct upper hand.
The second set was a little less dramatic with Sabalenka, after holding serve, securing the only break in the second game as Kuznetsova failed to take advantage of a 40-30 lead. The Russian blasted the ball into the net to help Sabalenka force deuce and then twice found her shots landing wide to go down two games down.
The following games went with serve and Sabalenka eschewed the theatrics to serve out the match and make the 10th final of her young career.
The second semi-final saw Kvitova ending a run of four straight defeats against Barty to reach the 37th final of her career.
The left-handed Czech’s most recent defeat to the World No 1 came at the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, although Barty herself was knocked out in the semis by eventual winner Sofia Kenin of the US.
Kvitova, the 2018 champion in Qatar, produced seven aces against Barty’s one and used her range and telling forehand to good effect, converting all four of the break points she got to put herself in line for her 28th Tour title.
Kvitova had reached the semis after tiring three-setters against Carla Suaárez Navarro and Jelena Ostapenko before ending the run of Tunisian star Ons Jabeur in two tiebreaks.
Barty, on the other hand, had a first-round bye and a walkover to boot in the round of 16 when Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina withdrew with a leg injury.
She, however, made the semis with a three-set win over Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in a late match on Thursday, and although she appeared to be in her zone in the second set against Kvitova, she surrendered her momentum midway through the decider to lose for the second time in the semis in a matter of one month.
“Yeah, it’s been a very positive week, it really has, and tonight was no different. It was an exceptional match, obviously you look at a match and you debrief it to the nth degree,” said Barty
“But I think it was another really great contest with Petra, I love testing myself against her and, yeah, a match in where she played extremely well and took the match away from me in key moments,” she added.
Kvitova said her ploy to stay deep in the court paid her dividends.
“Well, I pushed myself a lot to go more deeper to the court. So I tried that she couldn’t have put me away from the baseline that much. So I took time from her and she couldn’t do that much with her forehand,” said Kvitova.
“So that was kind of the key, to try near by the baseline and just play from there and still pushing to the court.”
Kvitova has an excellent record in finals, having won 27 of the 36 she has been in so far.
“I think that I play better and better when I’m deeper in the tournament, so that’s one of the good things which I have. But I’m struggling sometimes in the beginning of the tournament, so that’s how it is.
“But I don’t know, I always bring something else in the finals and I just love playing final, that’s why I’m playing tennis, for those trophies, and it’s, you know, playing final is something like that you are very close to have the title, but it’s still very far.
“And I don’t know, it’s something bigger than I think, I think it’s just very close there and I just put everything what I have left.”
The final will be played at 6pm today.
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