The wild ride of the 2021 St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy continued with two wildcards booking their places in the semifinals. Margarita Gasparyan upset No.1 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 7-5 and Vera Zvonareva dispatched qualifier Anastasia Gasanova 6-3, 6-1.
The tournament has delivered a series of standout matches this week, including five clocking in around the three-hour mark. After those longueurs, the first two quarterfinals were more straightforward on a day shaping up as a noteworthy celebration of Russian tennis.
For the first time, seven out of eight quarterfinalists at a WTA tournament are Russian. It is a group spanning multiple generations, but with each individual on her own unique career arc. The first clash pitted two 26-year-olds against each other for the first time and was followed by a 36-year-old mother facing a 21-year-old WTA Tour rookie.
Alexandrova and Gasparyan are peers in terms of age, but have taken different routes to reach this stage. Moscow-born Gasparyan broke through first, cracking the Top 100 in August 2015 after winning her first title in Baku, and the Top 50 following a run to the Australian Open fourth round the following year. But years of injury followed, including a 16-month layoff due to knee surgery.
While Gasparyan was sidelined, Alexandrova's rise began. Though born in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, Alexandrova had lived and trained in Prague since she was a teenager - and largely eschewed junior tennis. She took slightly longer to debut on the big stage, breaking the Top 100 in March 2017 and the Top 50 two years later, but over the past two years has established herself as a threat to players at the very top of the game. That's particularly the case indoors, where she has won 37 of her past 45 matches dating back to October 2018, and more at WTA level than any other player in that timeframe.
But it was Gasparyan who took control Friday. Though both players favoured flashy, first-strike tennis, the World No.126's strengths clicked more consistently. Gasparyan posted a 66% first-serve percentage compared to Alexandrova's 48%.
Gasparyan also showed off more dimensions to her game. Her one-handed backhand produced both flat winners and scything slices that enabled her to outdo Alexandrova on defence.
The top seed, who was troubled by a spate of five double faults, never seemed to settle after her opponent's fast start. Though Gasparyan wobbled as the finishing line approached, twice conceding a break advantage in the second set and failing to serve out the win after missing her first match point, Alexandrova could not take advantage. The World No.34 ended the match in a flurry of unforced errors that took her tally to 24, putting Gasparyan into the first WTA 500 semifinal of her career and guaranteeing her a return to the Top 100 next week.
Former World No.2 Zvonareva is one of the most decorated Russians in the field, but in her comeback from maternity leave has not gone higher than World No.76. She attained that ranking after a run to the semifinals at this tournament in 2019, and returned to that stage after a strong performance against her younger countrywoman Gasanova.
Both players had triumphed in three-hour matches in their previous rounds, with Zvonareva's upset of No.3 seed Fiona Ferro officially the longest in tournament history. Indeed, Gasanova had won two in the previous two days, beating Katarina Zavatska over 3 hours and 4 minutes in the first round before saving three match points to upset No.5 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in 3 hours and 8 minutes.
The World No.241 Gasanova showed flashes of the brilliant shotmaking that had brought her to this stage. But she was unable to capitalize on the biggest points during a tight opening sequence. Zvonareva repeatedly stymied Gasanova with superb anticipation and clutch serves, and after saving three break points to hold for 3-3 in the first set took firm control of the contest.
"I think the surface suits her really well," said Zvonareva of her opponent. "The ball doesn't bounce very high, it stays low, so it is not easy to go for the winners. If you're trying to go for too much, it's likely [you'll] make an unforced error. I was trying to make her move around the court as much as I could and then take any opportunity on the shorter balls."
Ultimately, World No.145 Zvonareva would save six of the seven break points she faced. Gasanova fought valiantly even as the scoreboard got away from her, and saved the first four match points before succumbing.
Zvonareva will next bid to reach her first WTA final since Tokyo 2011, where she will take on Gasparyan, who is aiming for her third career final and first above 250/International level.
"It's amazing, we played first round qualies last year and now we're here facing each other in the semifinal," said Zvonareva, who won their 2020 tilt 6-2, 6-2. "She's a great player - she's hitting the ball very hard and her backhand is great, a one-handed backhand which is very unusual for the women's game."