SHENZHEN, China - No.7 seed Elena Rybakina powered into her third career title with an impressively cool-headed performance, defeating Kristyna Pliskova 6-2, 7-5 in one hour and 13 minutes.
It is the second year running that the Kazakh has kicked off with a final run - although, in a mark of how rapidly she has risen, 12 months ago it was the Playford ITF W25 trophy she was competing for.
Rybakina, then the World No.186, lost that final to Anna Kalinskaya; both players would finish 2019 in the Top 100, but it was Rybakina who climbed further and faster, and who now sits at a career high of World No.36 following a maiden title in Bucharest, another final in Nanchang and a first Premier 5 quarterfinal in Wuhan.
"I played well in China last year. It was two or three tournaments that I played really well. It's amazing to be in the final, and I'm looking forward for tomorrow's match," Rybakina said.
"Today, I served really well -- much better than the last days. I was focusing on the return also, because I know that she's a player who plays aggressive and fast, so I was ready for the first few balls. That was important, and that's what I did."
The 20-year-old has shown no let-up in 2020 so far. In the quarterfinals, she collected her third career Top 20 scalp in an upset of No.3 seed Elise Mertens, and today she dealt with the pressure of being the higher-ranked player in a semifinal with aplomb. Maintaining a first serve percentage of 64%, winning 80% of those points and dominating from the baseline with smooth power off both wings, Rybakina was also supremely clutch.
She would face just three break points in the match - saving the first with a crosscourt winner from her oft-lethal backhand in the third game, the second with a second serve ace to open the second set, and the third with another backhand winner that landed, laser-like, plumb on the line at 4-4 in the second set.
The youngster also impressed on return. Pliskova's serve is a formidable weapon which garnered the Czech eight aces in total, and she landed a decent 66% of her first serves overall - but in the first set, Rybakina was frequently able to read its direction and send it back with even more pace to nullify her opponent's advantage. A backhand return winner sealed the first break for 3-1, and Rybakina seized a second when, facing her second set point, Pliskova double faulted.
Through the majority of a serve-dominated second set, it was Rybakina who wobbled more: through the first 11 games, Pliskova would drop only four points behind her delivery, relentlessly pounding down a series of aces, service winners and one-two punches.
Rybakina had her share of rapidfire holds, too, as her own ace tally reached nine, including two in a row to seal a tight ninth game - but Pliskova forcing a break point in two separate games might have given the World No.66 hope of extending the match to a decider.
But at the business end of the set, it was Rybakina who held firm. Deep, powerful returning in the final game put Pliskova under pressure, and the former World No.35's hopes of reaching her first WTA final since Prague 2017 dissipated as she offered up three consecutive groundstroke errors and, down a second match point, found another Rybakina pass too hot to handle and sent her volley into the net.
Tomorrow's final will be a first-time encounter for Rybakina as she bids to halt No.5 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova's nine-match winning streak and capture her second career title.
"I know her, but we've never played against each other in WTA tournaments," Rybakina said. "I['m going to watch her match, talk with my coach and I'm going to try and do my best tomorrow."