ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Defending champion Kristina Mladenovic has turned around her singles struggles in impressive style at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, dispatching Daria Kasatkina, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 to return to the championship match.
"There's a reason why Daria was in the semifinals," Mladenovic said after the match. "I wasn't surprised to see her beat Wozniacki; she's been playing really great tennis in general. She's very talented, but especially the surface and environment - she loves the home crowd - we made it a very good match. It was high intensity, high quality. There were some ups and downs with the scoreboard, but I tried to stick to my game: be aggressive, keep fighting."
Mladenovic came to the Premier event having not won a singles match since July, but nonetheless full of confidence after capturing her fourth Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open, while Kasatkina had upset the reigning Australian Open champion in her bid to become the first Russian woman to reach a final in St. Petersburg.
"It was such a tough match, especially physically," Kasatkina said after the match. "I started to feel it in the second set, it became tough to handle. But Kiki did such a good job, playing aggressively at the right moments. I was supposed to do the same thing, but she did it better and won the match quite fairly."
The pair brought their all-court games to Sibur Arena and treated the crowd to a two-hour epic that featured a combined 55 winners and 14 service breaks as the momentum swung back and forth throughout.
"Mentally, I was fine, but physically I was feeling the pressure from her and I didn't feel like I could put the pressure back on her. I was falling more and more behind the baseline, but it's ok. I nearly made the final, but it's still so nice to be able to play in St. Petersburg, just to play at home: St. Petersburg or Moscow.
"I had some good vibes here and making the semifinals meant I got to stay here the whole week. I wanted to win and fight for the trophy in the final, but I'm sure it will come."
The No.4 seed needed all of her variety to combat Kasatkina's spins and slices, ultimately turning up the power on her forehand side to get the early edge in the deciding set.
While the Russian nabbed one of the two breaks back, Mladenovic proved too strong in the final stretch, winning the last three games to make her first WTA final since the Mutua Madrid Open in May.
"A little bit of everything made the difference today," Mladenovic said. "I might have been a bit fitter, physically, and maybe had fewer doubts because I kept my intensity up all match. I took some risks in the end, and it paid off."
Mladenovic made her Top 10 debut last fall and could ensure she stays at World No.10 should she knock out an in-form Petra Kvitova on Sunday; should she finish runner-up to the two-time Wimbledon champion, semifinalist Julia Goerges will make her Top 10 debut.
"Every tournament is difficult, different. Last year I had big wins: Mertens, Venus Williams, Vinci, Vikhlyantseva, Putintseva, and they were all quality players. It was high-quality tennis, but I'm very satisfied and happy with myself to be back into the final, especially with the line-up this year. There's one more match to play, and I know my opponent is also in amazing form this week."