STRASBOURG, France – Nao Hibino has qualified for her first WTA Tour semifinal on clay after overcoming Jelena Ostapenko, 7-6(2), 7-6(4) at the Internationaux de Strasbourg.
The Japanese player had never previously taken a set from her Latvian rival yet edged a remarkably unpredictable opening set on a tiebreak before fighting back from two breaks down in the second to claim it in an identical manner.
Although a close match, it was littered with service breaks, which came in sharp contrast to the two players’ second-round outings. Hibino, who took out No.8 seed Sloane Stephens in the first round, was not broken during her victory over Zarina Diyas on Wednesday, while Ostapenko saved 12 of 17 break points.
In total, there were 12 breaks of serve shared equally between the pair, but it was the WTA World No.84’s greater success on her second serve, plus an unforced error count of 21 compared to her rival's 38, that allowed her to prevail.
“It’s surprising for me that I’m doing well this week. Playing on a clay court is not my favorite thing,” she said.
“Jelena hits hard and has good forehand and backhand, so I just kept telling myself to put the ball back as much as possible.”
Contrary to her sluggish start against Kiki Bertens on Wednesday, Ostapenko, who was playing in her first semifinal on clay for more than two years, excelled in the opening minutes of this encounter, winning the first eight points to race into a 2-0 advantage.
It was a beginning that promised a one-sided set of tennis, yet what transpired in the first three quarters of an hour was anything but.
Both players were incredibly aggressive against the serve, which led to a total of eight breaks in the opening set. Ostapenko, the WTA World No.43, twice enjoyed a two-game lead, though on both occasions it was rapidly extinguished by her opponent, who then got herself into the lead and twice served for the set.
Indeed, Hibino had three set points but was unable to take any of them as Ostapenko dug her heels in and found her form to force a tiebreak.
In a frame in which both players were very streaky, it was Hibino who held her level in the decisive game. Ostapenko made a litany of unforced errors at the beginning of the breaker, including a double fault, leading to a one-sided game that saw Hibino’s two points on serve early on become decisive.
She carried the momentum into the beginning of the second set, finding a fine angle to deliver a backhand winner that sealed the opening game, after which Ostapenko required a medical timeout.
In the aftermath of that stoppage, the 23-year-old did well to twice hold her serve and began to look brighter in the middle part of the set, twice earning breaks to carry her to the brink of levelling the match.
But the unpredictable nature of the match continued as Hibino reeled off four-straight games to ultimately force another breaker.
Again it was Hibino who was the stronger player during the decisive game, profiting from a missed dropshot from Ostapenko to bring up two match points. This was taken with a classy crosscourt backhand, which sealed a third successive win after arriving in Strasbourg on a five-match losing streak.
She will face the winner of Elena Rybakina and Zhang Shuai in the final four.