The 2021 St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy has been characterized by top-quality drama all week, and that pattern held up in the semifinals.
In the first all-Russian last four in WTA history, both younger players triumphed to set the 30th all-Russian final. A clash of wildcards saw Margarita Gasparyan save four set points in the second set before defeating Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 7-6(9), and the battle of seeds that followed saw No.8 Daria Kasatkina essay her second comeback in as many days to overhaul No.4 Svetlana Kuznetsova 1-6, 6-0, 6-2.
The one-handed backhand may be rarer than it used to be on the WTA Tour, but it's thriving in 2021. Gasparyan's shone throughout her encounter with Zvonareva, and following Viktorija Golubic's run to the Lyon final two weeks ago makes her the second single-hander to reach a WTA final this season.
Former World No.41 Gasparyan, previously a champion at Baku 2015 and Tashkent 2018, has reached her first WTA 500 final. The last player with a one-handed backhand to make a final at this level was Carla Suárez Navarro at New Haven 2018; the Spaniard was also the last 500-or-above champion with a single-hander at Doha 2016.
Gasparyan's pattern this week has been to start sets by racing out to a healthy lead - sufficient to see her over the line despite a few twists and turns. The 26-year-old got her game under control first, taking a 4-1 double-break lead. Holding on to it was harder work, but Gasparyan saved her best shots for the biggest moments: a forehand winner down the line to regain the double break for 5-2, a crosscourt backhand stunner to seal her first set point.
The second set saw Zvonareva demonstrate real tenacity in clinging on - and very nearly pull off the comeback. The 36-year-old former World No.2, who was bidding to reach her first final since Tokyo 2011, pegged Gasparyan back from 0-3 to 3-3, and then forced a tiebreak from 3-5 down.
By this point, Zvonareva had almost completely cut out the errors that had beset her at the start of the match, while a nervy Gasparyan's accuracy was oscillating wildly. But at the business end of the tiebreak, it was the older player who faltered.
Zvonareva had advanced to a 6-4 lead, and ultimately held four points to force a decider. But a tame return and a backhand just wide squandered two of them. Gasparyan, refusing to back off her shots, saved the other two with ferocious forehand winners and, despite double faulting on her first match point, closed out the win on her second with another thrilling baseline exchange.
World No.126 Gasparyan becomes the lowest-ranked player to reach a WTA 500-or-above final since World No.153 Svetlana Kuznetsova was runner-up at Cincinnati 2019. Kuznetsova will not be her opponent on Sunday, though. The St. Petersburg native dominated at the start of her match, but was ultimately outfoxed by Kasatkina - who rebounded from a first-set blowout for the second day in a row, having defeated No.2 seed Veronika Kudermetova 1-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
It was an intriguing first encounter: an inter-generational clash between two Russians whose games were honed on Spanish clay. The deployment of heavy topspin is fundamental to both their games, but Kuznetsova is generally more offensively-minded in the utilization of it.
That showed in the first set. It was tighter than the score suggests, with four games going to deuce, but Kuznetsova won all of those. The 35-year-old was able to bring her heavier artillery to bear whenever she most needed it, and her crosscourt backhand was particularly formidable as she tallied nine winners.
Kasatkina emerged a changed player for the next act. Finding the balance between offence and defence has long been the former World No.10's greatest challenge, and tilting too much towards the latter was a significant component of the slump that saw her fall out of the Top 50 in 2019.
But the second and third sets saw Kasatkina unleash on her forehand with more consistent vigour than she has shown in some time - and it paid off handsomely. The World No.61 raced through eight games in a row, and ultimately 12 of the last 14, as she dominated the second half of the match.
During that passage of play, Kasatkina struck 12 winners to six unforced errors, and did not face a break point. And there were more than a few magic touches to wow the crowd, too: reflex volleys and dropshots, jumping backhands and, to set up match point, a biting forehand slice that engineered a finely threaded pass.
Already a champion this year at the Phillip Island Trophy, Kasatkina becomes the second player to reach multiple finals in 2021 following Garbiñe Muguruza (champion in Dubai and runner-up at the Yarra Valley Classic and Doha). It's also Kasatkina's first WTA 500 level final since her title run at Moscow 2018, and gives her the chance to become the first player to win both Russian tournaments in her career.