OSTRAVA, Czech Republic - No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka sealed the WTA tour's first all-Belarusian final over No.4 seed Victoria Azarenka, surging past her countrywoman, 6-2, 6-2 to win the J&T Banka Ostrava Open, her second title of 2020.
"I'm so excited I was able to handle a high level from her from the very first point," Sabalenka said after the match. "I was able to stay with her and it didn't affect me, so I'm really happy to get this win. It's so important for me."
In a pitch-perfect performance, Sabalenka, who ended the day by winning the doubles title alongside Elise Mertens, kept her focus as the former World No.1 began to flag in the second set, securing her seventh title in 68 minutes.
"After some of the tough matches I had, I felt less pressure going into the others. I was able to play more freely, and I knew I could come back no matter what. Matches like the ones I played this week helped me be more consistent and focused."
The first all-Belarusian WTA final was also the first time these countrywoman were facing off away from Flushing Meadows. Azarenka and Sabalenka have done battle at each of the last US Open fortnights, with the former handily winning their most recent Louis Armstrong Stadium encounter in September.
"After our US Open match, I sort of knew what to expect coming into this one, that she was going to move me around the court. It was going to be long rallies and I was going to have to move really well to win these points. I prepared myself well for this match, and it didn't surprise me. I hit a crazy passing shot on the first point, and it was a great start for me. The first six games was a really high level."
Both women were playing their first tournament since Roland Garros, and Azarenka, herself in the midst of a career renaissance after winning the Western & Southern Open and finishing runner-up to Naomi Osaka in New York, had been on song for most of her week in Ostrava. After dropping the first set in her opener against Barbora Krejcikova, the two-time Grand Slam champion won six straight to reach her third final in as many months.
Sabalenka, who started the season with a third Premier 5 title at the Qatar Total Open in Doha, was twice on the brink of defeat, rallying from a 5-2 deciding set deficit against Coco Gauff to avenge her Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics loss, and won the final 12 games against Sara Sorrbes Tormo after losing the first 10.
"I would say I learned my warm-ups have to be more intense. I have to feel a little tired from the warm-up to make sure I'm ready to get on the court. I have to be focused from the first point and my emotions have to all be in one place so I don't lose my mind. Hopefully, I'll continue to find more solutions next year."
Steadying to a solid win over US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady, Sabalenka maintained that momentum early against Azarenka, kicking off the match with an exciting rally and soon broke at love to grab the final's first big lead.
Though Azarenka kept the next two games close, she was outdone by her fellow Belarusian's barrage of winners as Sabalenka surged through the opening set with a total of 16 - to just eight unforced errors.
She ran off seven of eight points to break early in the second set as Azarenka appeared in physical distress, calling a medical timeout.
"I started to feel bad yesterday," Azarenka said after the match. :I had a really bad migraine and sometimes this happens. That was pretty significant. I obviously felt better this morning, but the effect of playing under lights that cause sensitivity, and still recovering from yesterday, it triggered more of the same reaction. It was very unfortunate for me today, but it is what it is.
"I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to make myself feel better. I took it as something like a challenge for myself, and what I could do to perhaps find a solution for the next time. I'm proud I was able to at least go through with that."
Looking visibly hindered on serve, Azarenka took more risks off the ground and while she scored a first break of serve, Sabalenka rediscovered her range to put herself a game away from the title.
Putting away a big serve on her third championship point, Sabalenka's winning week wasn't over yet. Partnering Mertens, Sabalenka eased past Gabriela Dabrowski and Luisa Stefani, 6-1, 6-3 to win her fourth doubles title - all with Mertens.
"Aryna's really playing well this week, in singles and doubles!" Mertens said after the final. "We played at a consistent level this week, especially in the final. She's the hard-hitter, and I'm the one with the hands! We both give 100% in doubles even if we're still in the singles, so that's why we do well."
"We did well this year, but we hadn't won a trophy yet," Sabalenka added. "It was really important to us to win one, and we had such amazing energy together. Hopefully, there's many more to come!
"We're young and strong, and we can handle both singles and doubles!"