SHENZHEN, China - Last summer, Katerina Siniakova told WTA Insider that facing her idol Maria Sharapova was one of her dreams.
On Friday, the No.6 seed turned that dream into glorious reality by out-serving and out-manoeuvring the Russian 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the semifinals of the Shenzhen Open to keep her title defence on course.
Last year, the Czech had shocked the tennis world by carving up a strong draw to seize her maiden title. Two of her three career Top 10 wins came in that run, over Simona Halep and Johanna Konta, and she has been in equally sparkling form this week - conceding just 14 games en route to the last four, and committing a mere four unforced errors in her quarterfinal victory over Kristyna Pliskova.
“I can’t even describe it. I’m really happy and I think you could see the emotion when I finally won the last point," Siniakova said. "It was a tough match for me and even tougher to close it. I’m a player who will fight for every point and never give up and I think this match shows it."
In her first meeting against Sharapova, the defending champion picked up where she left off. Consistently making inroads into her opponent's serve, Siniakova had five break point chances across all but one Sharapova service game in the opening set, while facing none on her own delivery; she converted two of them on the way to a dominant first set.
The 21-year-old, taking the ball early and redirecting it from line to line, efficiently prevented Sharapova from settling into a baseline rhythm - and she also conjured up moments of brilliant creativity, such as the flicked backhand angle to set up set point.
The World No.59, meanwhile, was struggling on serve once again, landing just 50% of her first deliveries. Having committed 22 double faults en route to the semifinals, two more in the third game paved the way to the first break, and a third down break point in the seventh game put the 30-year-old down a double break deficit.
When Sharapova got her second serve in, it wasn't much better, as she was able to win just 38% of those points.
It was this stroke that showed the most marked improvement in the following set. Banging down three unreturned serves on the first three points was a statement of intent; raising her first serve percentage to 61%, Sharapova would concede just three points on serve in the second set.
Siniakova's own serve would ultimately be one of the key shots of the match, and a noticeable improvement in her game over the off-season: the Czech hammered down 10 aces to Sharapova's one and in 13 service games faced break points in only one.
That one, however, determined the second set: a marathon second game in which Siniakova fended off five break points, three with unreturned serves or aces, but which Sharapova finally seized on her sixth opportunity with a backhand crosscourt return winner.
Another crucial factor today was Siniakova's mental focus - an aspect of the game that has let the emotional Czech down at times in the past. Today, it was tested to the limit. A controversial overrule in the first set rattled Siniakova - but despite some loose errors in the ensuing few points, she managed to regain equilibrium within the next game.
Two points from losing the second set, Siniakova kept her focus as Sharapova questioned the dampness of the court surface at length, and ultimately held her serve on resumption.
By contrast, despite having won 28 of the previous 31 points on her own serve going into the sixth game of the deciding set, it was Sharapova who blinked first, missing two forehands and committing a fifth double fault to offer up two break points - the first of which Siniakova duly took by spectacularly redirecting a backhand down the line.
At the match's climax, with Sharapova in full-throttle comeback mode, Siniakova was also able to put two missed match points in the penultimate game behind her and find the balance between offence and defence to sneak through.
Her final service game included a successful serve-and-volley and a brilliant backhand down the line winner, but also a desperate, scrambling rally - one of the longest of the match - to take victory on her fourth match point.
In tears of joy afterwards, the Czech also acknowledged that she wears her heart on her sleeve: "Probably too much! But that's me, and I'm okay with it. Maybe sometimes I should make it better, and I'm trying to do it, I'm working on it."
Tomorrow, the defending champion takes on No.1 seed Simona Halep in the final, a reprise of last year's second round encounter - their sole meeting so far, and one which Siniakova won 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 for her first ever Top 10 win.
“It’s amazing to be back in the final. It will be different from last year when it was the second round. She probably didn’t know me so well. I will try to show my best like I did today and hopefully it will go my way,” the Czech added.
The duo will also face off in the doubles final after Halep and Irina-Camelia Begu and Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova each prevailed in super tiebreaks in the semifinals.
Said Siniakova's partner, Krejcikova: “I’m really happy because we had a tough match. We didn’t take our chances when we had them but I’m happy we made the final and can play for a trophy tomorrow. I know [Katerina] is a big fighter and I’m happy she is in both finals and she can get two titles hopefully."