ISTANBUL, Turkey - Unseeded Polona Hercog stormed into her first WTA final in nearly six years with a dynamic display of attacking tennis, defeating Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-2 in the first TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup semifinal in one hour and 29 minutes.
The Slovenian was ranked as low as World No.265 last July following an eight-month hiatus from September 2016 to May 2017 in which she had to deal with shoulder, left knee and right wrist injuries, as well as surgery on her appendix.
"I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself," Hercog said of the long drought since her last title round. "The result is great - but most of all I'm really excited about the way I'm playing right now. This is the brilliant thing for me, because if this is the way I play, there are gonna be many more finals."
A year on from her return to competition, however, and Hercog is firmly ensconced back in the Top 100, with highlights of her comeback including a third-round run at Wimbledon last year - and, yesterday, a revenge win over her conqueror there, No.2 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Sakkari paid the immediate price for a slow start: a double fault and netted backhand put the Greek down a break in the opening game of the match. Thereafter, though she displayed her trademark tenacity in trying to get a foothold in the match, Hercog's level was simply too high.
Two-time Bastad champion in 2011 and 2012 - the latter of which was her last appearance in a WTA final - Hercog's game, equal parts power and touch, was built for clay courts.
The 27-year-old's full range was on display from the off: a whipped forehand, laden with topspin, that pushed her opponent behind the baseline before punishing any balls that landed short; a number of delectable dropshots that even the speedy Sakkari was unable to reach. Hercog would also show off wheels of her own, too - in particular an exquisite counter-drop at full stretch in the fourth game of the second set that left Sakkari flailing.
In total, the World No.75 would blast 20 winners, mostly off that imposing forehand wing - and her formidable first serve was on song, too, as she nailed 73% of her first deliveries and saved all four break points that she faced over the course of the match.
"The serve and the forehand are the shots I put the most faith in," Hercog said afterwards. "And I'm just trying to go for it, to get as many points as possible from them."
By contrast, her 22-year-old opponent, playing just the second semifinal of her career following Wuhan last October, struggled with her own service, landing only 45% of her first deliveries.
Sakkari was also not quite able to find the balance between attack and defence: though the World No.49 won the point of the match, in the third game of the second set, with brilliant retrieving before slotting a forehand pass into the space, her attempts to dictate rallies with her own heavy forehand frequently led her into error.
The first Greek to be ranked in the Top 50 since Eleni Daniilidou in 2008, Sakkari's Istanbul run has also guaranteed that she will hit a career high in next week's rankings - which will beat the No.43 career high of that her mother, Angeliki Kanellopoulou, set in 1987. Though she battled hard to save the match, fending off four points against the double break deficit before Hercog's forehand finally powered through her on the fifth, she would fail to find an answer to the former World No.35's serve in time.
Afterwards, Hercog ascribed her improvements to a new way of thinking. "The way I approach every practice, every match, actually every ball on the court," she described her approach these days. "I'm just trying to play 100% in every moment of the game or practice - bcause what happens in practice is going to happen in a match, so I started paying attention to that part."
In tomorrow's final against either No.7 seed Irina-Camelia Begu or Pauline Parmentier, Hercog will try to replicate today's form to capture her third career title, and first outside Sweden.