OSAKA, Japan - The unseeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova powered into her first final of the season, and second at the Toray Pan Pacific Open, with a 6-3, 6-3 upset of No.4 seed Angelique Kerber in one hour and 19 minutes.
The result seals the Russian's 19th career final, first since winning Strasbourg 2018, and first at Premier level since coming runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki at this tournament - when it was held in Tokyo - in 2017. "After the first match [this week] I started to play better and better," said Pavlyuchenkova afterwards. "Going deeper in the tournament, I just feel more comfortable and better with my game - I enjoyed myself out there, fighting and trying to do my best."
It was Pavlyuchenkova's second match win of the day: rain had suspended her quarterfinal against wildcard Misaki Doi at 2-0 yesterday, and she had resumed earlier to finish it off 6-2, 6-2. Indeed, Kerber was the only semifinalist who did not need to double up, having dodged the deluge when No.5 seed Madison Keys retired trailing in the third set of their last-eight clash - but that advantage did not help the German today as Pavlyuchenkova levelled one of the tightest head-to-heads on tour at seven wins apiece going back to 2013.
In a contest marked by incremental momentum shifts and up-and-down form from both, the World No.41 was ultimately superior at managing the ebbs and flows of the scoreboard to lift her game on the most important points, finishing with 23 winners to 19 unforced errors.
With both players boasting two of the finest return games on tour, the serve meant little today: there were nine breaks of serve in total, including five in the opening set. But while Kerber snatched the opening advantage for 2-0, it was Pavlyuchenkova who bounced back to take six of the next seven games, with her crosscourt backhand in particular garnering the 28-year-old several key points, especially when teeing off on the German's second serve - which only netted Kerber 26% of the points when she had to rely on it.
Superb counterpunching saw Kerber move up a break once more, but a double fault immediately conceded the advantage, and Pavlyuchenkova cantered to the end of the set in a flurry of winners. Serving it out was an adventure, with three unreturnable serves followed by three cheap backhand mistakes to squander triple set point, but another booming delivery saw the former World No.13 over the line on her fourth chance.
The opening stages of the second set looked momentarily as though the match could tilt back towards Kerber as the three-time Grand Slam champion fended off triple break point for a stellar hold for 2-1 - and then saw Pavlyuchenkova immediately cough up consecutive double faults and take an angry swipe at the court. But the Australian Open quarterfinalist harnessed her emotions in impressive style to raise her game, entering something of a purple patch to save two break points - one with a remarkably angled forehand winner - and power through the next four games.
By contrast, the double faults and unforced errors were now mounting for Kerber, who tallied six of the former and 10 of the latter and who was increasingly unable to put her opponent under sustained scoreboard pressure.
On the brink of victory, Pavlyuchenkova again made closing out complicated as she exited her zone emphatically, dropping serve with an error-strewn game. But Pavlyuchenkova was able to bounce back with positive returning tennis, sealing victory - and a clash against No.1 seed Naomi Osaka in the final - as a Kerber backhand found the net.