STRASBOURG, France - No.5 seed Elena Rybakina has got her groove back at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, making her fifth final of the season and first since the Tour's resumption with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the unseeded Nao Hibino in one hour and 16 minutes.
The Kazakh had put together an eye-catching surge over the first two months of 2020, winning her second career title in Hobart as well as reaching finals in Shenzhen, St. Petersburg and Dubai to compile a 21-4 win-loss record - more match victories than any other player at that point. But after a shutdown in which she was unable to practise as much as she would have liked, Rybakina had been open that her level since returning had not matched that of January and February - but today's quietly efficient defeat of a canny opponent is further evidence that she has found her stride in Alsace.
It was Hibino, who had already knocked off two 2017 Grand Slam champions this week in Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko to reach her maiden clay semifinal, who threatened to gain the upper hand at first. The Japanese No.3 staved off two break points in a marathon opening service game - and then hit a purple patch for the subsequent passage of play.
Anticipating superbly to flick a series of perfectly weighted passes past Rybakina, counterpunching with resilience before injecting pace for winners of her own and crafting creative points with short sliced returns and angles, the Hibino highlights reel took her to the brink of capturing the Rybakina serve for a 3-2 lead.
But with an open court and an easy volley, Hibino netted her shot. Emphatic serving got Rybakina out of that game, while the after-effects of a missed opportunity were evident as the World No.84 coughed up three unforced errors and a double fault in her own next service game to fall behind 2-4.
Thereafter, Hibino's early form would rarely reappear, while Rybakina would deliver a measured and authoritative performance befitting of her rank. A heavy crosscourt forehand on set point was too much for Hibino to handle, and a second double fault from the Hiroshima champion relinquished her serve at the start of the second set.
While it wasn't wholly clean from the 21-year-old, who committed five double faults and occasionally lapsed into cheap error with her groundstrokes, Rybakina was able to find her best first serves and one-two punches when she needed them. The double faults were countered by five aces and several more service winners - and when it seemed as though carelessness might land her in trouble, she was razor-sharp in shutting it down, finishing with a tally of 20 winners to 22 unforced errors.
A pair of netted Rybakina groundstrokes and a fifth double fault reopened the door for Hibino, bringing up a break-back point in the eighth game. But the World No.18 immediately found another gear, firing an unreturnable serve and a brace of searing winners to move up 5-3. Two games later, Rybakina closed out with a hold to 30, balancing two errors with three more terrific winners before Hibino dragged a forehand wide down match point.