DUBAI, UAE - The Elena Rybakina surge shows no sign of letting up: the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships found the fast-rising young talent post a Tour-leading 19th match victory of the year 7-6(5), 7-6(2) over No.8 seed Petra Martic, saving one set point in each set, to reach her fourth final of the season after two hours and 11 minutes.
The Kazakh was ranked World No.192 this time last year, but in the past eight months has now reached the first six WTA finals of her career, with today's result marking her second at Premier level. So far, Rybakina has taken the title in Bucharest last July and Hobart a month ago, and been runner-up in Nanchang, Shenzhen and St. Petersburg. Moreover, this week has seen the 20-year-old double her career total of Top 20 wins to six after taking the scalps of Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova - and now, in a gripping contrast of styles, coming from a break down in both sets to master the craft and variety of Martic in their first meeting. In total, Rybakina would strike 32 winners to 23 unforced errors - an impressive positive ratio against the wiles and athleticism of her opponent.
"So tired, but happy!" smiled Rybakina afterwards. "First set it was not easy because she plays really good. She has really good slices. Her serve, it's not flat like I played with Pliskova for example. It's completely different style of game. It was not easy to start against her. But I tried to work every point. Second set, I was 3-0 down, but I knew it's going to be easier to win this set than play a third one. I wanted to win second so much."
Rybakina credited her serve, which garnered her six aces, as key to augmenting her desire to win. "Serve helped me today," she said. "I was fighting every point. I think just fighting."
The Croat's tactics were clear from the outset: she took the first point of the match with a clean dropshot winner, and thereafter blended big serving, superlative defence and canny finesse to test her less experienced opponent's consistency. For much of the set, this was a winning strategy: though Rybakina showed tremendous heart to capture the opening act's two longest tussles, a break-back in the second game after three deuces and a monster hold after six deuces, saving three break points, in the fifth game, Martic was nonetheless in control of the match's rhythm and pace.
Rybakina's smooth, heavy ballstriking made for a number of highlights throughout - particularly when she showed signs of matching Martic for courtcraft in several long, complex exchanges - but the Istanbul champion's 79% first serve percentage was enough to emerge from an opening three-break sequence with a one-break advantage, which she maintained until 5-4.
Serving for the set, Rybakina displayed the clutch shotmaking that has served her well all year - as well as her rapidly improving point construction as she built up key rallies patiently before nailing the winner. A forehand pass saved a set point and, combined with the Martic dropshot letting her down for once - the 29-year-old would net two in this game, including down a second break point - Rybakina levelled the scoreline at 5-5, and took all the momentum into the ensuing tiebreak.
Yesterday, Rybakina had come through a tight first set before dominating a tiebreak against No.2 seed Pliskova - and the World No.19 repeated that pattern today, landing heavy forehand blows and coming forwards at judicious moments to build a 6-2 lead. Unlike Pliskova, Martic would valiantly chip away at this - but a perfectly judged move to the net to put away a volley would seal Rybakina's fourth set point.
Renewed intensity from Martic to open the second set combined with careless errors from Rybakina in her first service game resulted in the Zhengzhou finalist leaping out to a quick 3-0 lead as she attempted to force a decider. But once again, Rybakina's impervious calmness in the face of scoreboard pressure shone through as she essayed another comeback.
It wasn't the kind of comeback marked by a definite momentum shift following by Rybakina taking firm control - although the youngster saving a point to go down a 0-4 double break by chasing down a Martic dropshot would be crucial. Instead, Rybakina would gradually chip away at Martic's lead, coming through a succession of games that could have gone either way before emerging on top of a knife-edge climax to the set - despite visibly waning energy levels.
The break back itself came in the seventh game, courtesy once again of a smartly judged Rybakina net play and a netted Martic dropshot. The final three service games at the business end of the set were all nailbiting deuce tussles in which both players saw chances come and go: serving at 4-5, Rybakina was two points from losing the set, but kept the depth and weight of her groundstrokes intact to draw Martic errors; swashbuckling overheads from Martic got the Roland Garros quarterfinalist out of a break point situation at 5-5; and although an exquisite Martic dropshot brought up set point in the next game, bold Rybakina backhand winners saved it and forced the tiebreak.
In another instance of déjà vu that speaks to Rybakina's ability to rise to the occasion, the newest member of the Top 20 would again dominate. A sixth ace and some fine defensive work were among her highlights as she sped to a 6-1 lead as Martic's offensive game went awry, and Rybakina upped the ante to close out the win on her second match point with what is becoming a trademark blistering off backhand.