In the first semi-final clash of the day at the Nature Valley Classic, Magdalena Rybarikova had to put together every single shot she had at her disposal to find a way to beat Barbora Strycova in straight sets, 7-6 (1), 6-4, and in doing so will compete in a first Birmingham final for nine years.
Rybarikova has had so much success at this tournament. In fact, she had the best winning percentage of all the semi-finalists and has now won 21 matches here and lost just five matches in total.
The first three games were marathon games, but it was Rybarikova who took the early break and was winning those tight, key moments in the early stages. As we so often see on a grass court, it is tough to really pull the momentum back your way once you go a break down, but this was not one of those matches. Both players were often trying to cancel each other out and it almost felt that Rybarikova and Strycova knew each other’s games inside-out and were often prepared and anticipating for that next shot and that next ball.
It was a delightful final to watch. Both players mixing their play up with some elongated rallies featuring plenty of backhand slices, variation of paces on the ball and showing so much court-craft that you do not see in every single match over the course of a whole season. In many ways it was almost like tennis from a different era, which made this particular final very appealing.
Strycova came roaring back to win four games in a row and served for the first set at 5-3 with a 30-0 lead. At times, Strycova let her emotions get the better of her, whereas Rybarikova’s elegant style of play never went away as she returned to form to take the first set in a steady tiebreak, only dropping one point.
There was a lot on the line for Strycova. She’s a player that absolutely loves returning to this tournament and she was bidding to become just the fifth player ever to reach the final here on three occasions. The only other players to reach this feat include Nathalie Tauziat, Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil and Pam Shriver, so Strycova desperately wanted that 3rd final, but more significantly a first title in Birmingham, having made the final in 2014 and 2016.
The start of the second set moved in a rhythmic pattern on serve until the seventh game of the second set, where Strycova stole the first break through some inspired passing shots that put her in an enviable position for the first time in the match. But just like the first set, Rybarikova did not go away, she continued to step into her shots and won the next three games to capture the match in straight sets.
Overall, Rybarikova managed her game that little bit better. The Slovakian connected with a total of twenty-four winners, which balanced out the twenty-two unforced errors that she committed. Strycova, on the other hand, made thirty unforced errors with a lot of those mistakes coming towards the end of the first and second sets.
Strycova’s assessment of her first semi-final here in two years was mostly of frustration and disappointment of the timing of her dips in level, which really cost her greatly in this particular match-up.
“Well I thought I was playing well throughout the whole set but not in the important moments when I had 30/0 there I didn’t do anything like special. I was just not putting first serves in. There was many times like this. It was 5-3 30/0, 4-3 in the second set 30/0, then 4-5 30/0 and I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do serve and volley. I think that I was maybe thinking too much that she will make a mistake instead of ‘I have to go for it, I have to maybe risk a little bit’. And that was the key today that i didn’t step it up the game. Well she was playing slice to my backhand because then to pass her at the net is really tough because the ball stays really low and you have to do really tricky shot or you have to just go for it and you see what’s going to happen. At the deciding moments, she was playing slice.”
Rybarikova also gave her insight of the parts of the match which really mattered and how she clawed back the momentum in her favour in the first and the second set.
“Yeah, I was leading her 3-1, but I knew it was going to be difficult because Barbora is such a huge fighter and returning quite well. I didn’t help too much with the serves. I knew it was going to be difficult and I have to focus on my serve, but I lost the serve. I knew again it was going to be difficult to close the set, as well for her. She was 5-4, 30-love and I played a couple of good points. Then the in tiebreak I think she did quite a few mistakes. That helped me a lot. When I won the first set, I was really believing I would win this match. Then again she had a break up and I was still fighting and still believing I can win it and I won that one. Well, I think we’ve played first time on grass, so maybe I’m little bit more confident to play her on grass than maybe clay or maybe hard court, because grass is my favorite surface. But she’s great player on grass also. She has great results on grass. She’s super skillful. She’s very talented. So I knew it was going to be difficult. And I had nothing to lose. I said to myself, okay, now is maybe the time to beat her. I knew it was going to be tough one. At the end it was tough one. So I’m very pleased the way I was playing today.”
The 2009 winner of this event will now go on to face defending champion Petra Kvitova, who is also a very good friend of Rybarikova’s. The Slovak broke down the match-up and talked about her relationship with the two-time Grand Slam champion away from the court.
“Well, Petra is really one of my best friends also on tour. She’s really amazing girl. We know each other so long. It’s going to be quite funny to play her. The funny thing is that we played against each other only in semifinals or finals. So that’s pretty funny. I only managed to win one. So, yeah, Petra, when she’s on fire, you can go shake her hand and say, Okay, I just want to leave from here. She plays absolutely amazing. For me, Petra is one of the best players when she is playing really on fire. So we will see how it’s going to be her day tomorrow. Hopefully she is not going to be on fire. But if she is, then for me it’s a great tournament. I will try my best. During practice we played here today. It was quite okay. But, you know, during the match, it’s going to be something totally different. Like I said, she’s a really great player and she’s the favorite of this match.”