DOHA, Qatar - No.9 seed Aryna Sabalenka overcame swirling winds and the unseeded Zheng Saisai to reach her second semifinal of the season at the Qatar Total Open, coming from a set down and a break down in the third set to win 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 in two hours and 21 minutes.
The Belarusian had been upset by Zheng in their first meeting last August in the San Jose final, but has now scored two victories in a row to move ahead in their head-to-head. Today, Sabalenka displayed tremendous heart - as well as smart tactical adjustments - to pull off a comeback victory after Zheng was quicker to adapt to the conditions. Though the wind added an unpredictable edge to the majority of rallies, sending the ball flying along wild trajectories and making aiming it to any particular location something of a lottery, the Adelaide semifinalist was able to gain control of an errant serve, take control by coming forwards and ultimately hit through a dogged opponent whose variety had initially threatened to outdo her, ultimately notching up 29 winners to 37 unforced errors.
"Honestly, I don't know," laughed Sabalenka when asked how she had pulled it off. "I was just trying to push myself to fight for each point. And she was playing really well, moving really good and there was so many balls coming back on my side. I was just trying to go for it, like go through everything, especially with conditions here. And I'm just happy that I could handle this pressure and could find the way how to win this match in these conditions."
Sabalenka also admitted that she had underestimated Zheng the first time they had played - but had learned not to do so again. "Before [the San Jose] final I didn't really expect this level from her," she recalled. "I knew that she is going to run well and she's going to put a lot of balls back, but I didn't expect that level and the balls will be that uncomfortable. Today before the match I knew it's going to be long rallies, it's going to be really tough and I just need to push myself through everything and just try to stay focused and calm. I'm not sure that I was calm today, but I was trying to be focused!"
The first set saw Zheng, playing with greater safety but also superior creativity, gradually take control by coming up with her best tennis to steal games she had seemingly been out of. The 26-year-old staved off three break points in her first service game, the last with a brilliant backhand pass, and then - after a mid-set exchange of gifted breaks, both conceded on double faults - captured the Sabalenka serve from 40-0 down after saving six game points for 4-3.
After a tight opening six games, that tussle would switch the momentum decisively towards the World No.37, who came out on top of an excellent net exchange to hold for 5-3 and then broke the Belarusian for a third time as Sabalenka descended into errors, double faulting for a sixth time down set point.
The 21-year-old came out with a renewed determination to hit through the wind as the second set got under way, and was rewarded for ferocious striking off both wings with the first break for a 2-1 lead. But a pair of remarkable Zheng gets - a backhand pass at full stretch that landed in the corner followed by another that dipped low enough to elicit a volley error from Sabalenka - garnered the immediate break back.
Thereafter, although few holds would be totally smooth sailing - Sabalenka had to save a break point in the sixth game, finding a well-timed service winner to do so - both players held firm to post eight straight holds to take the second act into a tiebreak. As the set drew on, the Wuhan and Zhuhai champion would gradually find her range, using her power in tandem with the wind, raising her first serve percentage from 54% to 77% and cutting down her errors as Zheng grew overly passive.
Having forced the tiebreak with her first ace, Sabalenka rode the wave to dominate it with swashbuckling power - as well as judicious forays to the net, where two winning volleys would prove crucial to jumping out to a quick lead. Even an ill-judged challenge midway through couldn't halt the Sabalenka express as she took the match to a decider with a blistering crosscourt backhand.
The third set saw both players committing to coming forwards, Sabalenka continuing a winning tactic from the previous set and Zheng rectifying the passivity that had cost her. Both are accomplished doubles players - Sabalenka is the reigning US Open doubles champion alongside Elise Mertens, while Zheng was runner-up at Roland Garros last year partnering Duan Yingying - and it showed, as both executed a series of high-quality volley winners.
A slight letdown after her second-set zone had cost Sabalenka at the start of the set, Zheng capturing the first break with a pinpoint backhand winner down the line - but the World No.13 would summon all of her fighting spirit to emerge on top of a four-deuce tussle to break back for 3-3, surviving four game points and taking her second break point as a Zheng backhand found the net.
Having come through that mini-marathon, the closing stages of the match saw Sabalenka unleashed. With her trademark war cry in full voice, the former World No.9 blew though 15 of the final 16 points, suddenly unbothered by the wind as her power found the mark time and again. A second ace down the tee would seal the deal and set up a semifinal against either No.4 seed Belinda Bencic or Svetlana Kuznetsova.