DOHA, Qatar - No.9 seed Aryna Sabalenka delivered a masterclass of power tennis to collect her sixth career title at the Qatar Total Open, blasting past No.8 seed Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-3 in one hour and 14 minutes.
The Belarusian, who struck seven aces and 21 winners to just 15 unforced errors, is now on an 11-match winning streak at Premier 5 level, having also triumphed in Wuhan last September, and today's win marked her third title in the past six months - as well as ending 2018 champion Kvitova's 10-match winning streak in Doha and levelling their head-to-head at two apiece. Dating back to that Wuhan title, Sabalenka's win-loss record is an impressive 22-6 - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the 21-year-old suffered personal tragedy during this period after the death of her father Sergey in November.
"It was a long journey here and I put everything on tennis," said Sabalenka afterwards, describing Sergey's impact on her. "I was actually only playing tennis and focusing on tennis and nothing else. And I think I gave everything for tennis. And I just lost my dad in the pre-season and he was my biggest motivation, and I'm doing it for him."
Playing in Qatar for the first time, Sabalenka had not thought she would walk away with the trophy. "I couldn't really expect the title for the first time in Doha... I'm really happy, it feels so special for me," she said. "I was really focused on each point, and played every point like the last point and like I'm actually losing... I respect [Kvitova], I knew she is a big fighter, I know she will bring everything she have on this final. I tried to focus on each point because I knew that she will try to come back in the game and she will try to beat me."
Sabalenka was impregnable on serve through a brilliant first set in which she landed 81% of her first serves, and won the same percentage of the points behind it. Consequently, Sabalenka would concede only six points in total when she stepped up to the line, never facing a break point and leaving her free to swing away on return.
The World No.13 would excel in this area, too. A stunning angled backhand winner during Kvitova's first service game was an early illustration not only of Sabalenka's aggressive intent - but also of the accuracy and subtlety of it. Though the Czech would come up with a flurry of superlative forehands to save two break points in that game, Sabalenka was undeterred and struck a decisive blow in the next, breaking Kvitova with a smart wrongfooting backhand down the line.
Over the course of the set, the Wuhan and Zhuhai champion also impressed with her control over her groundstrokes: both players would strike seven winners in the opening act, but Sabalenka had half the number of unforced errors, four to her opponent's eight. Retaining her advantage with the minimum of fuss, the Doha debutante closed out the set on her second set point with her second ace.
Battling to stay on the front foot, Kvitova would manage to carve out more opportunities in the early stages of the second set. In particular, a titanic eight-deuce tussle on the Sabalenka serve in the fourth game would see the two-time Wimbledon champion, getting hold of a number of deep returns that forced her opponent into error, bring up break point a total of five times - but each time, Sabalenka responded with some of her best serves, and eventually extricated herself from the game with consecutive aces.
A disappointed Kvitova admitted afterwards that Sabalenka had prevented her from playing her game. "I wasn't playing probably what I wanted to, but she didn't give me anything to play my game," said the former World No.2. "Aryna played amazing match. For sure she didn't give me anything for free, I had a chance once in the second set to break her serve, but I just couldn't make it. But it was very tight game and probably that's really helped her to win the second set."
Following an off-court medical timeout, Kvitova would also hold a 0-30 lead in the former World No.9's next service game - but was unable to keep down her own error count, which ultimately tallied 19 to only 12 winners, to take advantage. Having survived danger twice, Sabalenka took her power game to yet another level, finding a forehand pass to break the 29-year-old to love for 4-3 and then repeatedly pulling off a series of breathtaking winners as the finishing line drew closer.
Kvitova wasn't about to go quietly, boldly swinging away at a series of drive volleys to stave off triple match point serving at 3-5 - but Sabalenka would take this mini-tussle as well, sealing her fourth championship point as a backhand pass hit the net cord, forcing Kvitova to volley wide. The win will raise Sabalenka back up to the verge of the Top 10, lifting the new champion to World No.11 on Monday.