OSTRAVA, Czech Republic -- No.4 seed Victoria Azarenka hit “the big 4-0” at the J&T Banka Ostrava Open on Saturday, as the Belarusian charged into her milestone 40th WTA singles final by defeating Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-1, 6-3.
In the first meeting between the pair, World No.14 Azarenka started by winning the first five games of the encounter, and never looked back as she clinched victory over the 23rd-ranked Sakkari in one hour and 37 minutes.
"I believe I have strong assurance in my ability, of what I can do," said Azarenka, in her post-match press conference. "I think the matter of the next step is executing that assurance, and stay disciplined to perform the consistent work that I do."
Another final showing continues the stellar resurgence by former World No.1 Azarenka since the tennis hiatus ended in the summer. After starting the season 0-2, the Belarusian has gone 18-3 upon the season’s resumption, which includes her first title since 2016 at the Western & Southern Open, and her fifth career Grand Slam final at the US Open.
Azarenka saved seven of the eight break points she faced on the day, while breaking Sakkari's serve five times en route to her third WTA singles final of the season. Sakkari had 28 winners to Azarenka's 16 in the affair, but the Greek's 36 unforced errors well outpaced the Belarusian's 15 miscues.
"The whole point is to enjoy your work and process, and I think that’s a very simple thing to say, but when you actually feel that and you live that, that’s the most fun part," Azarenka stated. "Really being able to enjoy that moment."
"What I’m really happy with is that I play every point like it’s my last point, and I think that makes a difference for my opponent," the former World No.1 added. "I think I’m making it very hard for them to earn anything on the court, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do."
To notch her second title of the season, and the 22nd WTA singles title of her career, two-time Grand Slam champion Azarenka will have to triumph over either her compatriot, No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, or Jennifer Brady on Sunday. Sabalenka and Brady will contest their first meeting in Saturday’s second semifinal.
The first game of the clash proved to be crucial in the story of the opening set, as Sakkari garnered four break points, but Azarenka wiped them all away with aggressive play and held serve. Emboldened by the early escape, Azarenka started a streak by blasting a backhand crosscourt passing winner to break for 2-0.
Another backhand by the Belarusian forced an error from Sakkari on break point in the fourth game, giving Azarenka a 4-0 lead, and the No.4 seed continued her run, charging back from 0-30 down in the following game to reach 5-0.
Sakkari slammed an ace to close out the next game and put herself on the scoreboard, ending the five-game run by her opponent. However, Azarenka would not falter serving for the set, holding with ease to clinch the opener. The Belarusian never faced another break point in the opener after withstanding the quartet Sakkari had in the opening game.
Strong returning by Azarenka kept her in good stead at the start of the second set as well, with two quick service breaks coming her way as she opened up a commanding 4-0 lead. Sakkari also had to stare down a break point in the next game, but the Greek denied Azarenka the 5-0 lead, holding on for 4-1.
Things got much more complicated for Azarenka from there, as she dropped serve for the first time, at love, to give Sakkari her second straight game. Sakkari then fell behind 0-40 on her serve, but the Greek began to power through the court with greater consistency, and came out on top in the rallies to storm back in that game and reach 4-3.
The previous match on the Ostrava centre court was Aryna Sabalenka’s Friday-night comeback win over Sara Sorribes Tormo, where the No.3 seed lost the first ten games of the match before subsequently winning 12 straight games to achieve victory, and Sakkari, suddenly, was trying to pull off a similar feat.
A lengthy 4-3 game followed, where Azarenka could not convert any of her first four game points before Sakkari slammed a forehand winner to reach break point. However, the Greek missed her chance to level the set with a netted return, and Azarenka eventually gritted out the hold for 5-3.
After stopping Sakkari’s run of games, Azarenka found a putaway winner to queue up her first match point in the following game. There, Sakkari sent a forehand long, and the Belarusian had booked a spot in her 40th career WTA singles final.
"The momentum shift, I was able to handle well," said Azarenka. "[Sakkari] started to play more freely and go for really, really, really big shots, and that dynamic switched a bit in the second set. I’m happy that I was able to kind of turn that around, and that’s what was most important for me to take from today."