HOBART, Australia -- Elena Rybakina’s rapid rise into the top tier of WTA players kept on going on Saturday, as the No.3 seed from Kazakhstan defeated 4th-seeded Zhang Shuai of China, 7-6(7), 6-3, to claim the second WTA singles title of her career at the Hobart International.
"It’s amazing, of course," Rybakina told the press, after her victory. "I’m really happy with my win today, because last week, I had an opportunity, and I lost in the final. So this week, today I was really motivated, and I’m really happy with this result."
In the first meeting between the two players, Rybakina squeaked out a whisker-thin first-set victory, saving a set point in the tiebreak, before easing through the second set to claim the win after one hour and 33 minutes of play.
"I started very well, then, again, I lost concentration for a few games, but I managed to come back and win the [opening] set," said Rybakina. "It was not easy, it was windy a bit. The second set, I played much better."
World No.30 Rybakina has now won 30 of her last 39 matches on tour, a sequence which began with her run to her first-ever WTA singles title at Bucharest last July.
The stunning run for the Kazakh has lost no momentum in 2020, as she has now reached the final or better in both of her events this season. Last week, Rybakina fell at the last hurdle in Shenzhen, losing to Ekaterina Alexandrova in the final, before going one better this time around.
"Last week in Shenzhen, my opponent played really good, and it was a tough match," Rybakina stated. "Today I was just maybe more focused, because it’s the second time in the final, and of course I wanted to win so much. I just was focused 100 percent."
This time last year, Rybakina was ranked World No.171 and had yet to play the main draw of any Grand Slam events. The 20-year-old is now projected to be ranked a career-high World No.26 in Monday’s new rankings, and will be seeded No.29 in her Australian Open main draw debut next week.
"Last year [at the Australian Open] I lost first round in qualies, and this year I’m going to be seeded, so that’s great," said Rybakina, who will face American Bernarda Pera in the first round in Melbourne. "I’m just looking forward to this match on Monday."
Rybakina added that her rise up the ranks of the WTA has "been pretty fast. We’ve worked a lot with my coach, and it was not easy: so many tournaments I played last year. Now I’ve had a great pre-season, six weeks, and now I feel much better than last year, physically."
The Kazakh won nearly 80 percent of points on her first serve during the tilt, and went 3-for-3 on break point conversion, while only being broken once all day.
World No.40 Zhang got 71 percent of her first serves into play, but after a competitive first set, she dropped the final four games of the match. Zhang had won both of her two prior WTA singles finals, at Guangzhou in 2013 and 2017.
Rybakina got off to a torrid start in the clash, zipping to 3-0 after just five minutes, and winning her first 11 service points en route to a 4-1 lead. The Kazakh used her fearsome forehand to help her along to the commanding lead, as she was nearly impenetrable on serve up to that juncture.
However, Zhang remained unfazed, and at 4-2, the Chinese player staved off Rybakina’s 40-0 lead and clawed back on serve. Zhang used her variety of shot to pull herself back level for the remainder of the set, scrambling into the forecourt to routinely put away overheads and designing pristine passes when Rybakina ventured forward.
The rest of the set was evenly matched up to 6-6, with only one break point, which Rybakina saved at 5-5 with a forehand winner, during that timeframe. The duo moved into the tiebreak, where, again, little separated them. Zhang held the first set point of the breaker, reaching 6-5 with a backhand winner down the line, but Rybakina saved that with a crosscourt backhand.
Another big backhand gave Rybakina her first set point at 7-6, which was squandered by a wide return. But at 7-7, Zhang misfired on a wide backhand, giving Rybakina a second set point, this time on the Kazakh’s serve. There, Zhang knocked a return long, and Rybakina had eked out a hard-fought opening frame.
The second set was also tightly-contested at the outset, as the combatants advanced to 3-3 with no break points between them. However, Rybakina took her shot in that game, converting the first break point of the set with a scorching backhand winner down the line, to take the 4-3 lead.
In the second set, Rybakina’s grand groundstrokes were finding their targets near the sidelines with pinpoint accuracy. Another down-the-line winner, this time from the forehand wing, closed out a hold for 5-3, and Rybakina then converted her first match point in the next game, forcing an error with a strong forehand return to win her fourth straight game, and the title.