MOSCOW, Russia - No.5 seed Anastasija Sevastova battled into her seventh semifinal of the season with another hard-fought victory at the VTB Kremlin Cup, this time overcoming qualifier Vera Zvonareva 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in two hours and 13 minutes.
Runner-up in Beijing two weeks ago, Sevastova has now won all three of her matches this week in deciding sets, having beaten Magdalena Rybarikova 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the first round and Yulia Putintseva 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in the second round. The result was a belated revenge for her only previous encounter with Zvonareva - a 6-2, 6-3 loss in the third round of Indian Wells 2010 - and keeps the Latvian's hopes of making a Top 10 debut this week alive.
"I think it was a great match," she assessed her form afterwards. "We played at a very high level, she started on fire - it was tough but I fought my way through."
Both players' skills were on full display in a high-quality first set. Zvonareva laid down a statement of intent in the first game with a brace of backhand volleys, foreshadowing a set in which the Russian would make her way forward time and again - winning 11 of 13 points at net.
Sevastova had soft hands of her own to show off, too. Currently sitting at a career high of World No.11 after some of the best results of her career, including a US Open semifinal and the Beijing final, the 28-year-old came up with an exquisite half-volley pickup in the fourth game, some ridiculous sidespin to drag Zvonareva into net in the next - and would unleash on her forehand to break at her fourth opportunity to take a 4-3 lead.
But it was the home favorite who was more resolute as the set neared its close. Zvonareva, striking the ball crisply and disguising her redirection off both wings superbly, would come up with more aggressive patterns off the ground - a slight tactical shift that enabled her to break Sevastova twice and reel off the last three games of the set.
There would be an immediate response from Sevastova at the start of the second set as the Latvian's genius continued to flow. Another exquisite half-volley paved the way to a break in the opening game, and an impossibly angled pass hit while falling backwards would consolidate it for a 2-0 lead.
Zvonareva would continue to test Sevastova's lead, stretching the Bucharest champion to deuce on four consecutive service games. Sevastova's dropshot was no longer the weapon it had been in the first set, frequently misfiring - two limped into the net on consecutive points in the fourth game - and at other times simply becoming too predictable, with the World No.161 taking advantage to turn rallies around on numerous occasions.
In light of Zvonareva nipping at her opponent's heels throughout the set, it was little surprise when the 34-year-old finally broke through as Sevastova attempted to close it out, levelling the score at 5-5 with some positive returning. But for the majority of the set, Sevastova had staved off potential danger by coming up with her best serves and most solid play on big points - and she would find another level at just the right time once more.
From 5-5, the Mallorca and Beijing runner-up would be irresistible as she came out on top of cat-and-mouse exchanges and fired laser forehands down the line - and would reel off 16 of the next 17 points to take the second set and a break lead in the decider. Now steering the ball around the court with ease, Sevastova was so remorseless in moving Zvonareva from corner to corner that the former World No.2 would go sprawling on the ground as she fell behind 1-3.
The 2008 runner-up would battle valiantly throughout, and Sevastova was never allowed to pull away too comfortably: heavy backhands pounded from corner to corner enabled Zvonareva to break back for 3-3. But the US Open semifinalist continued to deal with the pressure well, coming forward to regain the lead and unleashing her groundstroke power to take the final three games, Zvonareva's resistance finally crumbling with three errors to end her run.
As she seeks to make her second straight final, Sevastova will now face another qualifier, Ons Jabeur, in the last four. Earlier today, Jabeur backed up her second-round upset of No.3 seed Sloane Stephens by putting on a delectable performance, full of outrageous winners and finesse shots, to defeat No.5 seed Anett Kontaveit 7-5, 6-1 - and become the first ever Tunisian player to reach a WTA semifinal. The 24-year-old afterwards attributed her form to being relaxed: "I'm going to continue to play without pressure, to have fun on the court - that's the key for me," she said.
Jabeur and Sevastova last played in the third round of Charleston 2017, with the latter winning 7-5, 7-6(6) - a match they both remember well. "It was a crazy match, she played amazing shots - every other shot was a trick shot!" marvelled Sevastova. Meanwhile, Jabeur is out to rectify that result: "I think we have a similar game - she likes to slice, dropshot, change the rhythm," she mused. "Hopefully I can take my revenge because I was supposed to win that match, I was leading 5-2!"