The unseeded Jasmine Paolini's dream week at the Zavarovalnica Sava Portoroz continued as she knocked off her third seeded opponent to reach her maiden WTA final, overcoming No.2 seed Yulia Putintseva 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours and 14 minutes.
"It means a lot," Paolini said, after her victory. "I'm playing good, so I'm very happy. It wasn't an easy match today, so I'm double-happy about the win!"
Paolini has excelled in WTA 125 tournaments this year, reaching the Saint-Malo final in May and collecting her biggest title to date in Bol a month later. Until this week, though, the 25-year-old had not progressed beyond the quarterfinals at Tour level.
But Paolini is fresh off a big-stage moment at the US Open, when she stretched Victoria Azarenka to the limit before losing a pulsating second-round battle on Louis Armstrong Stadium 6-3, 7-6(1). The Italian has brought that confidence to Portoroz this week, where her high-risk game also dazzled in wins over No.6 Dayana Yastremska and No.4 Sorana Cirstea.
Putintseva presented a very different challenge. Indefatigable on defence and giving Paolini no pace to work with, the Kazakh dominated the first set. Putintseva broke immediately, survived four break-back points in a marathon tussle to hold, and then accelerated to the end as a cascade of 20 unforced errors poured from the Paolini racquet.
Key to Paolini's turnaround was her commitment to engaging in extended rallies before pulling the trigger. Having struck only seven winners in the first set, she tallied 25 over the next two, with her versatile and powerful forehand proving a stellar finishing shot. Reversing the pattern of the first set, Paolini survived a three-deuce tussle to hold for 2-0 in the second - and from then on, she would manage to keep her nose in front.
A valiant Putintseva clung on to Paolini's heels, breaking back for 2-2 in the second set and again as Paolini served for the match at 5-3 in the decider. But Paolini found a series of scintillating winners to run away with the end of the second set and start of the third.
Meanwhile, Putintseva was increasingly beset by double faults. Two paved the way to dropping serve at the start of the final set, and her late-stage comeback proved in vain when she coughed up a seventh facing match point.
"I think being more patient [was key], because at the beginning I was hitting every ball to make the point, but she defends very good, so I was doing too many mistakes," Paolini said. "Then I tried to be more patient, to play more balls in the court, to be in the point, and I think that was the key."
In the Zavarovalnica Sava Portoroz final, Paolini will bid for her maiden title against No.3 seed Alison Riske of the United States, who dismissed local favorite Kaja Juvan, 6-0, 6-4, in the second semifinal of the day.
World No.38 Riske needed 87 minutes to end the breakthrough run of 103rd-ranked Juvan, who moved into her first WTA semifinal by notching two wins on Friday, including a quarterfinal upset of Slovenian No.1 Tamara Zidansek, the No.5 seed.
But overcoming the late-tournament experience of Riske proved to be a bridge too far for Juvan on Saturday. The 31-year-old American, a former Top 20 player and 2019 Wimbledon quarterfinalist, out-winnered Juvan by 20 to 8, while having 15 fewer unforced errors than the 20-year-old Slovene.
"I started out really hot in the first set, I feel like I didn't miss a ball," Riske said, after her win. "[Juvan] had a medical time-out, she had an injury, and she kind of changed the way she was playing, so I had to adapt there. I figured just staying cool in the moment [was key]."
Riske broke Juvan at love in the opening game, and though the American had to fend off a pair of break points in each of her first two lengthy service games, she never yielded as she took home a bagel.
Down 3-2 in the second set and with her thigh strapped, Juvan converted a break point with a forehand passing winner to level the stanza. However, Riske would reclaim her advantage two games later, using her forehand to force a wide error and break Juvan for 5-4. In the next game, a backhand winner by Riske on her first match point wrapped up the win.
Riske now finds herself in a milestone 10th career WTA singles final (her first since Wuhan nearly two years ago), and will aim for her third WTA singles title against Paolini on Sunday. It will be the first meeting between the pair.
"Honestly, I couldn't be more thrilled to be in the final," Riske said. "I'm looking forward to making it a battle tomorrow."