No.2 seed Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Gippsland Trophy on Saturday ahead of her semifinal match against No.7 seed Elise Mertens, giving the Belgian safe passage through to her first final of the 2021 season.
Mertens will now face unseeded Kaia Kanepi for the trophy on Sunday. Estonia's Kanepi continued her stellar run at the Melbourne event with a 6-3, 7-6(6) victory over No.9 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova to reach her first WTA singles final since 2013.
2019 Australian Open champion Osaka cited a "niggling injury" for the precautionary measure ahead of the start of the year's first Grand Slam event, which begins in two days' time.
While Mertens reached two finals in 2020, on the clay courts in Prague and the indoor hard courts of Linz, the Belgian will play for her first singles title since she triumphed at the Qatar Total Open in Doha in early 2019.
It had been a much longer drought between finals for former World No.15 Kanepi, who last played a championship match on the WTA nearly eight years ago, when she claimed her fourth career title in Brussels.
Yet the Estonian has looked in imperious form as the event wore on, including the 12th Top 10 win of her career which came over Aryna Sabalenka in the second round, quelling the Belarusian's 15-match winning streak. It is a run which is reminiscent of the days Down Under when she powered to the Brisbane title in 2012.
"I didn’t expect to be in the final, I just expected to play good every match I play," said Kanepi during her post-match press conference on court.
Six-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Kanepi held firm against the sturdy groundstrokes of Alexandrova in the closely-contested tilt. The pair had nearly identical numbers of winners and unforced errors, but ultimately Kanepi converted all three of her break points while Alexandrova only went 2-for-5 on her chances.
The first set of the hard-hitting affair was decided by Kanepi’s early break in the second game, which she never rescinded. Both of Alexandrova's break points at 4-2 went begging as Kanepi zipped to the one-set lead.
Miscues by Kanepi caused her to falter when serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set, and the Estonian also let a lead slip in the tiebreak, when 4-0 turned into 6-6. But on her second match point at 7-6, Kanepi slammed a strong serve and followed up with a forehand winner to clinch victory and post her first final showing since 2013.