In an absorbing semifinal at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza needed all her focus to hold off No.10 seed Elise Mertens, eventually closing out a 6-4, 7-6(5) win on her seventh match point.
"You have to be all the time concentrated, otherwise she will come back," said a relieved Muguruza after finally putting away an overhead. "I didn't lose the focus even though I couldn't close it [at first] - I was just looking forward to the next opportunity."
Muguruza, who was runner-up in Doha to Petra Kvitova last week, becomes the fifth player this century to reach back-to-back finals in the Middle East double. Martina Hingis and Justine Henin lifted both Doha and Dubai trophies in 2001 and 2007 respectively; Caroline Wozniacki won Dubai and was Doha finalist in 2011; and Svetlana Kuznetsova was runner-up in both in 2004, as was Wozniacki again in 2017.
The Spaniard thus continues the most consistent spell of her career, one that has seen her win multiple matches in 12 of her past 13 tournaments and reach the final in three of her past four. Muguruza's record in 2021 is now 17-4, and this week marks the first time she has made the title match in consecutive weeks since following her Wuhan runner-up showing in 2015 with a title run in Beijing.
Muguruza, who struck 36 winners to 40 unforced errors, was nearly always ahead on the scoreboard. Though broken in the first game, a four-game streak saw her take control of the first set. Coming up with booming backhands and constantly seeking to move up the court, the former World No.1 advanced to 5-2 in the first set. Resounding power tennis also saw her break Mertens for a 5-3 lead in the second set.
The Belgian had escaped three match points in her quarterfinal victory over Jessica Pegula the previous day, though, and had clearly acquired a taste for the Houdini act. Probing the Muguruza game with constant tactical adjustments, Mertens repeatedly came up with her finest hotshots with her back to the wall.
The Gippsland Trophy champion threaded a pass to save set point in the first set, essayed a dropshot-lob combination down an early break point in the second set, and lasered flat strokes into each corner to fend off the first match point she faced.
With her defensive short forehand slice causing particular damage as Muguruza sought to get over the line, Mertens in fact had a chance to serve out the second set herself. Muguruza was in no mood to let the match get away from her, though. Renewed determination to close out points at net paid off as she forced the tiebreak and came from 1-3 down to capture a hard-fought victory.
"I didn't think I played bad on the match points," assessed Muguruza afterwards. "They were just tough points that didn't come to my side. She was very good in defence and on those points I felt she brought her magic. But I was like, OK, I'm playing well, sooner or later I will convert the match point. I didn't lose the concentration or get too irritated."
Nonetheless, Muguruza was aware of Mertens' propensity for escapes, and knew it was important to seal the win in two sets.
"I was like, man, I have to close it out here," she laughed, recalling her final match point. "I could feel if she got the second set she was gonna be more pumped for the third set - yesterday she also saved some match points and she was hanging in there."
Muguruza has a similar attitude to her recent record in finals. A title remains the missing piece of the 27-year-old's resurgence over the past 14 months. She has lost her past three, the 2020 Australian Open and both the Yarra Valley Classic and Doha this season. Muguruza's most recent tournament victory was Monterrey 2019, and she has not lifted a trophy above 250/International level since Cincinnati 2017.
"Holding the champion's trophy is everybody's objective," she said. "We play hard in order to play the finals. Maybe they didn't go my way, the recent finals I've played - but at some point it will. To be able to be there is a sign that you're playing well, and that's where I want to be."
Earlier, the first doubles semifinal pitted two new-for-2021 teams against each other. Chinese duo Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan overcame No.5 seeds Timea Babos and Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 7-5 to reach their first final in their fourth event together.
Overall, the result marks Xu's 20th career WTA final and Yang's 11th; Yang will be aiming to capture the Dubai trophy for the second time after winning here in 2018 alongside Chan Hao-Ching.