EASTBOURNE, Great Britain -- 20-year-old Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka won her fifth consecutive three-set match at the Nature Valley International on Friday, outlasting 2008 champion Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, to reach her maiden Premier-level final in Eastbourne.
"It’s not easy to play against players like Agnieszka, because she’s so good," Sabalenka told the media, after the match. "She puts all the balls in, and she can read the game, like I said yesterday. I’m so happy that I did it finally."
It was the first meeting between the pair, and Sabalenka emerged victorious after one hour and 55 minutes to make her second WTA final of the season, after a runner-up finish in Lugano on clay. Sabalenka also reached the Tianjin Open final last year, but is still seeking her first WTA singles title.
The fiery Belarusian boomed 54 winners during the encounter, well outnumbering the 11 winners from Radwanska. Sabalenka also had 45 unforced errors during the match, but she prevailed when she needed to, coming back from a break down in the deciding set by going 2-for-2 on break points in the final stages of the match.
Sabalenka will now contest the final against a Grand Slam champion and former World No.1: either Angelique Kerber of Germany or top seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, who face off in the second semifinal later on Friday.
"When I was growing up, I was watching their games," Sabalenka said of her potential opponents. "I remember one situation with Wozniacki, she was running and put all the balls in, it was the longest point I’ve ever seen! It will be interesting. I’m really waiting for tomorrow’s match, because growing up, I didn’t think I would play against them, and tomorrow, it’s a good way to find out how to win [against] them."
The match started with six consecutive breaks of service, as both players took advantage of their opponent's less successful second deliveries. Radwanska only won three of her seven second service points in the opening set, while Sabalenka was even less effective, going 2-for-13.
But at 3-3, Sabalenka tightened up her power game which has helped her beat three straight Top 20 players this week, including World No.7 Karolina Pliskova on Thursday for her first Top 10 win. The Belarusian finally held for 4-3, saving two break points in the process before punching a backhand volley winner.
Radwanska attempted to counter with her first hold in the following game, and twice reached game point, but Sabalenka blasted her way past the Polish player once more, and broke again for 5-3 with a forehand winner. The 20-year-old rushed to triple set point in the following game, and closed out the opening set with her first ace of the match.
"It was much easier to make a break than to take your serve," Sabalenka stated. "Probably I was a little nervous because it’s my first [Eastbourne] semifinal, and I tried to find the confidence with my game, and finally I found it in the first set."
Sabalenka’s risky, aggressive play took command of the first set, as the Belarusian had 25 winners and 17 unforced errors, while Radwanska had just four of each. But, after breaking Radwanska in the first game in the second set, the wheels fell off for Sabalenka, as her powerful shots began to fall outside the lines much more frequently.
Radwanska, meanwhile, started to rediscover the grass-court prowess that brought her to the Wimbledon final in 2012. The Polish player finally held serve for the first time in the match to lead 2-1, then broke Sabalenka for 3-1 as the backhand errors off the Belarusian’s racquet began to mount.
Sabalenka was broken in her following service game, which was protracted but went Radwanska’s way on her fourth break point, after a Sabalenka forehand mistake into the net. Radwanska then held for 6-1, tying the match at one set apiece after claiming six games in a row. In the second set, Sabalenka’s 17 unforced errors well outpaced her ten winners.
Much like in her match against Pliskova, Sabalenka dropped a middling second set only to have a resurgence in the decider. The final frame did not begin that way, though, as Radwanska claimed the first break of the third set to lead 3-2, following back-to-back forehand errors by the Belarusian.
But the former World No.2 immediately dropped serve from 40-0 up, as Sabalenka worked her way back into the game and the match with her powerful play, breaking for 3-3 via a backhand service return winner. Sabalenka was rejuvenated by her fightback, and broke Radwanska again for 5-3, this time at love, punctuated with a backhand crosscourt winner.
Serving for the match, a skittish Sabalenka had to face a break point, but Radwanska squandered the chance to get back on serve by returning a second serve wide. A forehand winner by Sabalenka then set up match point, where Radwanska returned a Sabalenka volley long, giving the Belarusian up-and-comer another hard-fought victory.