ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- No.5 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara captured their fourth team title at the 2021 Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, defeating No.8 seeds Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani 7-6(5) 6-4.
The Japanese duo, who first paired at the 2019 Toray Pan Pacific, capped off a successful week that began with having to save four match points to defeat Andrea Klepac and Marta Kostyuk in the first round, prevailing 4-6, 7-5, 12-10, and included a dominant win over top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Krejcikova in the quarterfinals.
"The first round we couldn't do our best at the beginning," Aoyama said. "During the 10 point tiebreak (against Klepac/Kostyuk) I tried to talk more with my partner about what I want her to do and it's much better, our play, and that's why we could get the win. And then it was much better round by round. In the final we talked a lot and we kept fighting and we never gave up."
"It was definitely a rollercoaster," Shibahara said. "There were some match points to save in our first match and I think that really helped us through our next rounds. Even if we're down, we can come back. Even playing Su-Wei and Barbora, they're such high level players, so we just had to take it one point at a time and I think that really helped us.
"For me, today was definitely tough because both of them are probably my closest friends on tour and Hayley is like my family."
Aoyama/Shibahara started Wednesday's final strong, breaking immediately to earn a 2-0 lead in the opening set thanks to a smart poach at the net from Shibahara on a deciding point. But the American/Brazilian pair responded with a run of four consecutive games, which began with a break of serve to get on the board. Down 0-30 on her serve, Aoyama struck a double-fault to give Carter/Stefani a chance to break, which they did two points later.
Aoyama/Shibahara wrenched the momentum back from Carter/Stefani behind Shibahara's strong play at the net. At 3-4 down, the Japanese team broke with another smart poach from Shibahara to level the set at 4-4. The teams would exchange holds of serve to force a tiebreak.
"It was very difficult to finish the points because they have very good hands," Aoyama said. "But we didn't give up until the end. That's the important point."
The teams stayed level in the tiebreak until 5-5. The Japanese duo earned set point with some stellar work at the net from Shibahara, who fended off a pair of drives from Carter/Stefani before putting away a tricky overhead smash.
With Aoyama serving on set point, Shibahara redirected a cross-court backhand volley into the open court to seal the opening set.
The second set saw Carter/Stefani jump to an immediately 2-0 lead, responding well to the disappointing end to the first set. But Carter/Stefani could not conjure an answer to Shibahara's standout play on Wednesday. As Aoyama held her ground in the baseline exchanges, the 22-year-old dominated the space at the net. Aoyama/Shibahara broke back immediately to get back on serve at 1-2 and then broke again to move ahead to 4-3, before calmly closing out the match three games later.
"Today's match, we played well and we had some amazing points," Shibahara said. "I think the first set was really important for us to take to keep it going in the second set. But we couldn't let our guards down. I thought it was a really good match."
"If we can play well, we can win against every team, doesn't matter our opponent," Aoyama said. "But it's important to play our tennis. I think every player is strong, so I need to challenge and challenge and challenge every round. If we can do a good fight and play good, then we can have a good result."
The win took Aoyama and Shibahara's title tally to four, having won previously at 2019 Tianjin, 2019 Moscow, and 2020 St. Petersburg.
"Our goal is always to win a Grand Slam, but what's important is to take it one tournament, one match at a time, and always learn from each match and achieve our goal," Shibahara said. "Obviously, I'm really excited for the Olympics. That's just another thing to look forward to."