EASTBOURNE, Great Britain -- No.8 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus earned her revenge in a rematch of last year’s final, dodging a match point and defeating defending champion and No.11 seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5), to advance to the quarterfinals of the Nature Valley International on Wednesday.
Last year’s runner-up Sabalenka picked up her first win over a Top 20 player this season with her whisker-thin two-hour and 21-minute victory over two-time Eastbourne champion and former World No.1 Wozniacki. Wozniacki led 5-2 in the final set and held one match point at 5-3 before Sabalenka executed a stunning comeback to make the Eastbourne elite eight.
"Of course I'm happy with this win, and especially against Caroline," Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference. "She's a great player, and I lost to her in the final here last year. This win is really important for me, and I didn't win these tough matches for long, since last year."
Sabalenka finished the match with 40 winners to 23 unforced errors, while Wozniacki had 21 winners and 13 unforced errors. Wozniacki saved eight of 12 break points against her, and Sabalenka fended off eight of 13 break points during their closely contested clash.
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"I have been working for long to be more consistent on the court and to be more focused, and doesn't matter what, to play each point, forget about anything else," Sabalenka continued. "That's actually what happened today. I lost the first set, and [in the] last three games in the first set, I started showing my best, my tennis. Then it helps me to come back in the second set and start to play well from the beginning of the set.
"Well, there is only one thing in tennis I'd like to say, just be focused on each point and to forget about everything else. This is really tough. It's easy, but it's tough at same point. That's how it is."
World No.10 Sabalenka moves into the Eastbourne quarterfinals for the second time in her two appearances at the event. There, she will face No.3 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who ousted Anna-Lena Friedsam in straight sets to book her spot in the elite eight. Bertens has a 3-0 head-to-head lead over Sabalenka in their rivalry.
"[Bertens is] a tough opponent, she's a great player," said Sabalenka, as she reflected on her meetings with the Dutchwoman. "My thought is just to come on the court tomorrow and show my best, same like today. Just fight for each point and doesn't matter what happen in there. Just enjoy. Enjoy the atmosphere and fight."
"I don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow, but I can see that I'm coming back on my game and on my fight," added Sabalenka. "Tough mind, I would like to say."
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Consistent play by Wozniacki served her in good stead in the opening set, as errors from Sabalenka caused the Belarusian to fall into an early deficit. Wozniacki broke Sabalenka at love for a 4-0, double-break lead, and after the Dane held for 5-0, it was up to Sabalenka to rebound and get on the scoreboard in the opener.
Solid serving by Sabalenka put her on the board at 5-1, and the Belarusian grinded her way to 5-2, taking Wozniacki’s serve on her fifth break point of a lengthy game. But a double fault in the next game set Wozniacki up with two set points, and the defending champion converted the first after a netted backhand by Sabalenka.
But in the second set, it was Sabalenka who jumped out ahead first, crushing returns to earn triple break point at 2-2, and then claiming the lead at love after a double fault by Wozniacki. More powerful service returns brought Sabalenka a second break and a commanding 5-2 lead.
The Belarusian gave one break back but successfully closed out the set at 5-4, ending the frame with a forehand winner. Sabalenka’s six unforced errors in the second set were fewer than her ten miscues in the opener, and she fired 16 winners during this timeframe, double what she fired in the first set.
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The decider was very much up for grabs, but it was the Dane who used a deep forehand to force a wide error from Sabalenka on break point as she earned an early 2-0 advantage. Wozniacki moved smoothly through her next three service games to reach 5-2, as she edged closer to the win.
But, after reaching match point at 5-3, Wozniacki double faulted to give Sabalenka a lifeline. A backhand winner gave Sabalenka a break point, where Wozniacki double faulted again, and the Belarusian had suddenly come back from the brink of defeat to get back on serve at 5-4.
Wozniacki then had to save two break points before holding for 6-5, which she finally did with a backhand crosscourt winner. But the resurgent Sabalenka refused to budge, holding for 6-6 with a backhand winner down the line, and last year’s finalists were headed into the decisive tiebreak.
In the breaker, Sabalenka double faulted to give Wozniacki a 2-1 lead, but big groundstrokes by Sabalenka let her reel off four straight points to reach 5-2. Sabalenka got to triple match point after a Wozniacki forehand error, but she double faulted on the first, and Wozniacki won a stirring rally on the second. But on the third, Sabalenka hit a cracking forehand pass to close out an epic win.