HOBART, Australia - It's only the second week of the season, but No.3 seed Elena Rybakina has already posted her second run to a final, overcoming qualifier Heather Watson 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in the second Hobart International semifinal and setting up a title clash against No.4 seed Zhang Shuai..
It was a clash between two players who had both battled through grueling semifinals the previous evening: Rybakina had needed two hours and 37 minutes to quell wildcard Lizette Cabrera 6-7(4), 7-6(2), 7-5, a match that had followed Watson's three-hour, 33-minute 6-7(5), 6-4, 7-5 upset of No.1 seed Elise Mertens.
However, those exertions did not prevent them from putting on a high-quality three-setter over two hours and 16 minutes, with Watson's counterpunching and variety providing a good foil to Rybakina's power - but the latter ultimately prevailed as the Kazakh, who was runner-up in Shenzhen last week to Ekaterina Alexandrova, became the first player to reach two finals in the first two weeks of the year since Agnieszka Radwanska won both Auckland and Sydney in 2013.
"It was a really tough match. The second set, I was...still missing all these balls, and it was really tough," Rybakina said after the match. "The last few games, I was playing really risky, and I'm really happy that I won this match."
Watson was the slower out of the blocks, missing the mark on her backhand wing to concede her serve in the opening game. The Briton did manage to find her range quickly, firing a brace of aces and then nailing a pair of forehand winners to level at 2-2 - but thereafter, it was Rybakina who was able to find another level to resume control.
Hitting out on return and bringing her formidable crosscourt forehand to bear repeatedly, the 20-year-old broke Watson again for 3-2 - and once more for the set, taking her first set point as a Watson dropshot found the net.
The second set saw a dramatic turnaround as the 2015 champion hit back. Deploying the full range of her repertoire, Watson kept Rybakina off balance with sharp forehand angles and judicious use of short balls, and got her reward in the third game: Rybakina would save three break points with two aces and a service winner, but could not fend off the forehand return winner Watson fired on the fourth.
The World No.101 went from strength to strength as she came up with a plethora of winners in the next few games: a brilliant forehand pass to seal the double break and then consecutive successes with a volley, a dropshot and a wrongfooting forehand to race into a 5-1 lead.
But Rybakina's intensity, which had dropped in the face of Watson's tactical variety, returned with a vengeance as she sought to stay in the set. The Bucharest champion's focus returned to her heavy striking, with her backhand particularly on song: a winner from that wing saved one of two set points down 2-5, and after Watson had conceded that game with a double fault consecutive down-the-line missiles from that side brought Rybakina to the brink of leveling the set.
The World No.30 would hold two break points to tie the scoreline at 5-5 - and it took all of Watson's clutch abilities to stave off the fightback, saving one with a backhand winner of her own and serving out the set at the second time of asking with consecutive service winners.
A compelling, evenly matched decider saw both Rybakina and Watson hitting good form simultaneously. Each posted a 61% first serve percentage, and each would face only one break point through the first nine games - Watson saving hers in the second game as Rybakina's backhand went awry, and Rybakina fending hers off in the fifth game with another down-the-line backhand winner.
In the closing stages of the match, Rybakina would begin to struggle physically, needing treatment on her upper right leg - but the Wuhan quarterfinalist would remain solid in protecting her serve on resumption, and maintained a clear tactical head when she most needed to. Serving to stay in the match, Watson opened the door a crack with a third double fault - and Rybakina seized her chance, blowing the door open with big crosscourt strikes off both wings to reach match point.
Delightfully, Rybakina would seal victory with a marvelous switch-up to end a long rally, essaying an exquisitely executed dropshot winner that dipped just over the net for a clean winner.