Neither Coco Gauff nor Wang Qiang had reached a claycourt WTA final before this week - but one will emerge as the inaugural Emilia-Romagna Open champion tomorrow after seesaw semifinal victories.
No.3 seed Gauff, 17, needed three sets to get past Katerina Siniakova 7-5, 1-6, 6-2 in a high-quality encounter full of absorbing fluctuations. Having won Linz 2019 as a lucky loser, the teenager will now contest her second career final.
"It definitely gives me more experience, just the fact that I’ve been in a final before, so I know how the nerves feel, and I know how to handle it a little bit better," Gauff told the press, after her win. "Tomorrow, I’m just going to go out there and have fun."
No.6 seed Wang came from 1-5 down in the second set and saved three set points against Sloane Stephens for a 6-2, 7-6(3) win - a result that means she has yet to drop a set to the American in three matches. Wang had previously struggled in 2021, compiling a 4-11 record before this week, but has now reached her first final since the 2018 WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, and her first outside China.
Three momentum shifts were key to the outcome of Gauff's semifinal.
Most of the first set went with serve, but it was Siniakova using her all-court instincts to come up with the best shots and pile pressure on Gauff. The Czech captured a breakthrough that had been looming all set to break for 5-4 with a forehand winner.
But Gauff immediately responded, finding a series of thrilling winners to snatch the last three games of the set from Siniakova's grasp.
Siniakova, 25, wasted no time in wresting momentum back in the second set, breaking Gauff in the opening game and dominating from there. The former doubles World No.1 trusted in her forecourt skills with judicious net forays and skilfully out-manoeuvred her younger opponent.
Siniakova's surge took her to two break points to lead 2-0 in the deciding set. With her back to the wall, Gauff again responded in style. The American found clean winners to fight off both and hold - a turning point that saw her regain the momentum in its entirety.
Having struggled with her timing in the second set, as well as a double-fault tally that reached 10, Gauff was suddenly watertight again. She dominated the third set, with Siniakova unable to find answers, and closed out her first match point with a simple one-two punch.
"[Siniakova is] a super tricky player, she obviously had some great wins this week," Gauff said. "To be honest, I just kind of hung in there, and although in the second set my level went down a little bit, I was glad that I was able to pick it up for the third."
There have only been four all-American WTA finals on clay this century, with the last being Serena Williams's defeat of Madison Keys at Rome 2016. Wang ensured the drought would not be broken this week with a solid performance, tallying 20 winners to 26 unforced errors.
Previously, the Chinese player had dismissed Stephens 6-3, 6-3 at the 2016 Australian Open and 6-2, 6-2 at Wuhan 2017. The pattern continued in a one-sided first set in which Stephens failed to find any tactic that disrupted Wang's rhythm.
A hard-fought comeback from 5-1 down! 👊— wta (@WTA) May 21, 2021
🇨🇳 Wang gets the win over Sloane Stephens to book a spot in the Parma final, her first time back in a final since 2018.#EmiliaRomagnaOpen pic.twitter.com/EtIuJvqs2s
Briefly finding some acceleration on her groundstrokes, Stephens hit back to lead 5-1 in the second set against an error-strewn Wang. But she was unable to close the set out despite a series of marathon tussles. Wang captured three multi-deuce games, saving set points at 1-5, 2-5, and 4-5, to level at 5-5.
With Stephens now missing both short balls and rally balls as a matter of course to tally 41 unforced errors, Wang simply had to remain solid to take the ensuing tiebreak. The 29-year-old finished in style, though, finding a second ace on her third match point.
Saturday's final will be a first encounter between Gauff and Wang.