SHENZHEN, China - Top seed Aryna Sabalenka is picking up right where she left off in 2018, booking her spot into her first semifinal of the year at the Shenzhen Open.
Sabalenka, who capped off a breakthrough season last year with titles at Wuhan and New Haven and skyrocketed to World No.11, moved on after No.5 seed Maria Sharapova was forced to retire in the second set, trailing 6-1, 4-2.
"I think we both played well - and then she got injured," said the Belarusian afterwards. "Hopefully she will get well soon!"
Sabalenka and Sharapova had previously met in the final of the Tianjin Open back in 2017, which saw Sharapova claim the first title of her return to tennis following a 15-month suspension. The pair were supposed to take the court yesterday, but due to persistent intermittent rain in Shenzhen all of the matches were canceled and rescheduled for today.
The Belarusian’s ultra-aggressive tennis earned her an early break, building up a quick 3-0 lead. Sabalenka had an answer for everything Sharapova threw her way, moving about the court and firing clean winners off of both wings. She extended her lead to a double break at 5-1, and then fought off three of Sharapova’s break-back chances to close out the set.
Sharapova looked to be struggling with injury throughout the match, with coach Thomas Hogstedt urging her during an on-court coaching break, “If you feel more like you did on the first point, then you just stop. Or take a medical [time out] now.”
— WTA (@WTA) January 4, 2019
After receiving an off-court medical time out in between sets, Sharapova came back hot off the blocks to start the second. She powered to a solid service hold, then pushed Sabalenka in the next game, creating three break chances.
Sabalenka quickly turned things around, emerging with the edge after three straight breaks of serve, fighting ahead to a 3-2 lead. But game later, Sharapova found herself unable to continue and retired from the match citing a left thigh injury, trailing 4-2.
As the top seed, Sabalenka could be considered the tournament favorite - but not by the player herself, who concentrates on more short-term matters in order to succeed. "I never have any expectations for myself," she revealed. "Just to focus on each ball and fight to the end."
That said, Sabalenka is permitting herself to aim high with her season goals - particularly in the new location of the WTA Finals. "I will do my best in the season to get to the Finals here!" she exclaimed. "Last year I was so close, and so upset in the beginning when I did not make it - but this year I'm going to do my best, even better than last year."
Up next, Sabalenka will face the winner between Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu and China’s Wang Yafan for a spot in the Shenzhen final.