All week at the Winners Open in Cluj-Napoca, Mayar Sherif has been breaking new ground - and by defeating Mihaela Buzarnescu 7-6(1), 6-4 in the semifinals, the Egyptian has scored her biggest personal and national milestone yet, becoming the first player from her country to reach a WTA final.
The World No.119 started the week having won just one WTA-level match in the eight main draws she has contested since debuting in Prague last August. That was over Chloe Paquet at the Australian Open in February. But Sherif opened her Cluj-Napoca campaign with a stunning 6-2, 6-4 demolition of No.1 seed Alizé Cornet in the first round, and has kept motoring from there.
Sherif's feat also comes on a historic day for Egyptian sport. Earlier at the Tokyo Olympic Games, where she had made her own debut last week, Feryal Abdelaziz had become the first Egyptian woman to win a gold medal in the +61g kumite karate event. Additionally, Ahmed Elgendy had captured silver in the men's modern pentathlon.
"This Olympics we're doing much better than other years," said Sherif, who had not known about her compatriots' accomplishments due to staying off social media during tournaments. "We're getting more medals and playing with our hearts. I'm so proud of all of them. Being in a WTA final feels great, but it would also feel great to be in a final playing for gold."
Sherif backed up the Cornet upset, her first completed Top 100 victory, with defeats of junior World No.2 Alexandra Eala and Gdynia finalist Kristina Kucova before dispatching former World No.20 Buzarnescu, the last home representative in the draw. Against the Romanian, Sherif had to save a set point in the first set and then hold off a valiant comeback attempt in the second.
Pepperdine alumna Sherif, 25, maintained a more consistent level throughout compared to the ebbs and flows of her opponent's game. This enabled her to find more reliable tennis on big points, including converting all four break points she brought up.
Buzarnescu, who fired 17 winners to 19 unforced errors, came up with spectacular streaks of shotmaking at times. Taking the ball early and timing it superbly, the World No.170 came from 1-3 down in the first set to hold a set point at 6-5. But Sherif found an ace to stave it off, and proceeded to dominate the ensuing tiebreak and first half of the second set as Buzarnescu lapsed into error.
Buzarnescu, 33, was seeking to reach her fourth career final, and first since claiming the 2018 San Jose title exactly three years ago - before an unfortunate ankle injury halted her career momentum one week later. Buoyed by her home crowd, she found another purple patch to draw level from 4-0 to 4-4.
But Sherif was undeterred, and responded by raising her own level to take the final two games of the match - sealing victory on her first match point with the last of a series of brilliant passing shot winners.
Asked whether she had found playing from behind or ahead more challenging, Sherif opted for the latter.
"It's never easy either way, but when she came back from 4-0 to 4-4 you feel even more pressure than facing just one set point against you," she said. "I was struggling with the momentum - she started to play very good suddenly and I stopped hitting the ball. But I was calm because I knew what was going on, and I waited for my chance for things to go my way. I knew once I won the game for 5-4 I was not going to let go, and I did not."
Standing in Sherif's way will be resurgent No.2 seed Andrea Petkovic. The German held off qualifier Aleksandra Krunic 6-4, 6-2 to reach her 13th career final, and second in her last three tournaments after coming runner-up to Elena-Gabriela Ruse in Hamburg. In between, the former World No.9 was a semifinalist at the Belgrade 125; after losing 11 of her first 15 matches in 2021, Petkovic has now won 11 of her last 13.
The 33-year-old had willed herself to victory in her quarterfinal, coming from a set and 0-3 down to defeat qualifier Seone Mendez 6-7(6), 6-4, 6-1. That match had been suspended for darkness on Friday with Petkovic a game away from victory, and she had resumed on Saturday to wrap it up in short order.
A few hours later, she picked up where she had left off. Petkovic finished with 17 winners and 16 unforced errors against Krunic, but the key to her win was weathering the Serb's flamboyant shotmaking and gritting out the most important passages of play.
Petkovic was down a break at 2-3 in the first set, but reeled off seven of the next eight games to take a 3-0 lead in the second. The World No.268 found a second wind to threaten a comeback, but Petkovic staved off three game points which would have seen Krunic level at 3-3, and then three break points in the next game to pull ahead to 5-2.
Petkovic will next bid for her seventh career title, and first since Antwerp 2015.
Dzalamidze, Juvan capture first WTA doubles title
Sherif's bid to lift both the singles and doubles trophies in Cluj-Napoca ended in the doubles final, where she partnered Katarzyna Piter. Instead, Natela Dzalamidze and Kaja Juvan triumphed 6-3, 6-4 to seal a first WTA title for both.
Russia's Dzalamidze had lost both of her previous two WTA doubles finals - Linz 2017 with Xenia Knoll and Palermo 2021 with Kamilla Rakhimova. The Russian was a two-time doubles champion at 125 level, having won both Taipei 2016 and Mumbai 2018 with Veronika Kudermetova.
Piter fell to 1-6 in WTA doubles finals, with her sole title coming at Palermo 2013 with Kristina Mladenovic. Both Juvan and Sherif were competing in their first WTA final.