The 20-year-old rising Belorussian Aryna Sabalenka powered her way into a first Premier-level final as she beat former Eastbourne champion Agnieszka Radwanska in a three-set match.
This has perhaps been one of the more memorable weeks in Sabalenka’s career and it has essentially been a week of firsts for her. It is the first time in her career that she managed to beat three seeded opponents inside one single tournament. She beat No. 6 seed Julia Goerges in the second round, then surpassed the in-form No.9 seed Elise Mertens in a dramatic third round match before getting her first career Top-10 win over defending champion Karolina Pliskova, a match where she was down 4-1 in the 3rd set before turning the tables on her opponent to win 7-6 in the decider.
There were six breaks of serve in the opening six games, but the Belorussian was the player that made the first meaningful stride towards winning the first set as she held for the first time then broke in the following game. The series of huge blows from both the forehand and backhand side of Sabalenka was something that was proving hard to deal with for the much less powerful Radwanska, who was often watching her opponent dictate a lot of the rallies with smooth, clean ball-striking, but it still remained a question mark as to whether the inexperienced Sabalenka could construct the points and keep it up for another set of tennis in unfamiliar surroundings and unchartered territory.
After taking the first set, Sabalenka really started to spray unforced errors and we started to see why Radwanska has so much success against some of the hard-hitters because she hangs around long enough to wait for the dip in level and the lapse in concentration and in time that was what happened with Sabalenka’s game. Radwanska secured six games in a row to win the second set and even led by a break at 3-2 40-0 in the 3rd set, but Sabalenka started to find the court again and played her best section of the match when the chips were down as she rolled through four games in succession to progress to her biggest WTA final of her career.
Sabalenka is relatively inexperienced on this surface. This is just the second year that she has started to find her feet on the grass and it is easy to forget that this is her tournament debut at the Nature Valley International, but the early indications show that Sabalenka could be a regular feature on this surface due to the aggressiveness of her ball-strike, her willingness to dictate and how impressive the tennis can be when she gets it right. The key talking point is how often she will get it right.
Sabalenka was in bright spirits following another big win for her and she admitted to being on the brink of retiring in the 3rd set as she struggled to find energy, but fought through to turn the 3rd set around and battled through with sheer determination and will. The Belarusian admitted she was totally surprised with the way she turned the deciding set around.
“Yeah, one week before I didn’t know I will make a final here, but then all what I did and just try to show my best, because I know I can play well. Just I have to put it on the game. Well, so I did my best, and now I’m in final and I’m so happy.
“Yeah. Actually, yeah. After Love-40 on the sixth game, I was, like — I was surprised that the scores start to be like 40-All, and this is start again the game, which I try to show. Yeah, I was a little bit surprised, and then I just keep going and she was — she couldn’t play.”
It is another huge scalp in the career of Sabalenka, who has won 21 WTA main draw matches in this 2018 season alone. She had only won 12 WTA main draw wins in the whole of her career before this season, so now we are starting to see the quality and calibre of player that Sabalenka truly is. In making the final, Sabalenka breaks the Top-40 of the WTA rankings for the first time and she will go into the final knowing that one more victory not only bags her her biggest title but it also puts her inside the World’s Top 30 at the tender age of just 20.
Standing in the way of Sabalenka claiming a Premier-level title is the 2009 Eastbourne champion Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki may not be a huge idol of the Belorussian, but the 20-year-old had some very nice words to say about her game and how she watched the former World No.1 a lot when growing up and developing her own game.
“Of course this is amazing, because I remember one thing when I was young. I watch her game, and there was, like, the longest point which I saw, and she was, like, she was totally dying on that, but it was amazing because she’s good fighter. She try to put all the balls in. I was watching and I thought, well, it would be nice to play against her. I hope it will happen sometime. Now I play final with her and I’m happy.”
A skilled defender of a tennis court with tonnes of experience going up against the ruthless, unwavering and brave aggressive ball-striker. Only one player can take all the glory in Saturday’s final.
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