ABU DHABI, U.A.E -- World No.10 Aryna Sabalenka extended her career-best winning streak to 13 matches and booked her spot in her third consecutive semifinal by defeating No.19 Elena Rybakina 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open quarterfinals. The No.4 seed will face Maria Sakkari for a spot in the final.
Heading into Monday's quarterfinal, neither Rybakina or Sabalenka had yet to lose a set. Facing her first Top 10 opponent since losing to Elina Svitolina in the Strasbourg final last fall, Rybakina was bidding for her fifth career Top 10 victory and her first over Sabalenka, who won their only prior meeting at the 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, 6-3, 1-6, 6-1.
Little separated the two in the 34-minute opening set, which was decided by a single break point that came on the last point of the set. Putting on a clinic in first-strike tennis, both women leaned into their forehand wings at every chance, blistering the ball to open the match.
Sabalenka and Rybakina exchanged cool, clean holds for the first six games before Sabalenka was able to come through the first tough service game of the match. The Belarusian came through a two deuce game to hold to 4-3.
Rybakina was the first to blink and it cost her dearly. Serving at 4-5 and having lost just three points on her serve through her four service games, Rybakina fell behind a quick 0-40 and Sabalenka broke her for the set on her first break point, as Rybakina put a tight forehand wide.
"I knew that she was going to play really fast and deep and I have to stay lower so I prepare myself for these shots," Sabalenka said after the match. "I knew that it's going to be like this because she's playing really free and sometimes you don't have time to prepare for the shots and she's making a lot of winners. That's what happens against these times of players. Everything can change really quick. You have to wait for your opportunity because these kinds of players cannot play all the time at this level. It will drop a little bit and I have to be ready for this moment.
"Even when she's playing well I need to try to do something against her, show her that I will fight no matter what and give her an extra ball to hit. That's tough but I knew it was going to happen and that's why I adjust really well today."
The end of the opening set came swiftly and suddenly, but Rybakina kept her focus and her cool after the disappointing end. She broke Sabalenka's serve immediately to start the second set. After going the first set without a sniff of a break point chance, Rybakina converted on her second break point and never looked back.
Behind improved serving, Rybakina held firm in the face of Sabalenka's return pressure. Sabalenka was able to take Rybakina to deuce or 40-30 in all but one of Rybakina's service games in the second set, but after falling behind a double-break at 1-4, Sabalenka was unable to make up her deficit.
The World No.10 did well to get one break back and reel off two strong games to close the gap to 3-4, but serving at 4-3, 30-all, Rybakina found a scintillating forehand cross-court winner to earn game point. She calmly closed out the game with a big service winner up the tee to slam the door on Sabalenka's comeback attempts, eventually closing out the set at 6-4.
"The first set was a really great set from the both of us," Sabalenka said. "The seond set, I think at the beginning I dropped my level a little bit and wasn't ready for her coming back in the match. Then after 1-4 it was really good that I kept trying to come back and kept trying to find my game again. That really helped me in the third set to be actually in the match and compete on this high level. That definitely helped me to win the third set."
This time it was Sabalenka's turn to jump out to an early break advantage. After a short toilet break between sets, the 22-year-old broke Rybakina in her opening service game and consolidated easily to build a quick 3-0 lead. Rybakina contributed to her own deficit by failing to find her dangerous first serve for much of the set. Despite serving 12 aces in the match, Rybakina served at just over 50% in the final frame. She did well to protect her serve for the remainder of the match but failed to generate any pressure on Sabalenka's serve.
Stepping to the line to serve out the win at 5-2, Sabalenka needed three match points from 40-15 up, but finally converted with the help of a big serve to close out the high-quality match after just over two hours. Sabalenka finished with 30 winners to 37 unforced errors, outhitting Rybakina's 24 winners to 27 unforced errors.
Looking ahead to her semifinal showdown with Sakkari, Sabalenka pointed to her prior wins over the crafty Ons Jabeur and power-hitting Rybakina as proof of her readiness.
"I'm really happy that already at the beginning of the season I've played against different styles," Sabalenka said. "That's really good and I'm really happy. It's giving me a lot of advantage. It's perfect to start the season like that after the pre-season. I will prepare myself, doesn't matter who I'm playing against. My coach is preparing me really well and I know I will be ready for each player."