No.1 seed Iga Swiatek and No.4 seed Maria Sakkari claimed their allotted spots in the J&T Banka Ostrava Open semifinals on Friday, setting a final four showdown between the two in Ostrava.
Top seed Swiatek of Poland defeated No.7 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-6(5), 6-2, to book her place in the semifinals. In the first meeting between the Top 20 players, Swiatek needed an hour and 41 minutes to hold off the challenge from Rybakina and make her first semifinal since her title run at Rome in early May.
Stat corner: Swiatek was stellar behind her first serve, winning over three-quarters of those points, but less so on her second serve, where Rybakina took charge and claimed 61 percent of points. Ultimately, Swiatek was able to get a strong 72 percent of first serves into play, helping her along to victory.
Key moments: In an aggressive tussle, it was Swiatek who grabbed the early 3-1 lead before Rybakina gritted out a challenging service break with a rally crosscourt backhand to level the opening set at 3-3. Swiatek, though, kept the Kazakh at bay with powerful groundstrokes from both sides, and an easy hold for 6-6 by the Pole set up a first-set tiebreak.
Strong serving by both players kept the breaker competitive, with Swiatek claiming the first set point at 6-5 after consecutive unreturned deliveries. The top seed converted that chance, staying sturdy through a lengthy rally until Rybakina sent a backhand miscue wide. Despite having fewer winners than Rybakina and an equal amount of unforced errors, Swiatek swiped the set.
With the momentum behind her, Swiatek charged ahead 5-1 in the second set, although Rybakina clawed one break back in that game, edging to 5-2 with a backhand winner down the line on break point. But the big Swiatek forehands came out in force in the next game, and she prevailed in a protracted battle to convert her third match point in that game.
Earlier, No.4 seed Sakkari booked a place in her sixth semifinal of the season, and second straight at the J&T Banka Ostrava Open, with a 7-5, 6-3 win over wildcard Tereza Martincova in one hour and 36 minutes.
Sakkari had won both of her previous encounters with Martincova in three sets, 7-5, 1-6, 6-1 in a Santa Margherita di Pula ITF W25 event in 2015 and 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-0 in the third round of Doha 2020. But despite failing to serve out the opening set at the first time of asking over the Czech, who was playing her first WTA 500 quarterfinal, Sakkari maintained her control to take her head-to-head lead to 3-0.
Keys to the match: The serve has been the bedrock of Sakkari's game in 2021, and has seen the Greek surge to a career-best year: she now sits at a career high ranking of World No.12 having compiled a 33-15 win-loss record, including two Grand Slam semifinal runs. It was crucial again on a day when Sakkari committed 29 unforced errors off the ground. Even though she landed just 63% of her first serves, the efficacy of her delivery was such that she faced break points in only one game.
That came when she was broken at 5-4 in the first set. But in keeping with the whole match, Sakkari was able to prevent Martincova from gaining any momentum. Throughout, Sakkari was both clutch and tactically aware. Martincova had spent nearly five-and-a-half hours on court over her previous two rounds, and seemed to be tiring at the start of the second set. Sakkari responded with a succession of ruthless winning dropshots.
What's next for Sakkari: The semifinals are a familiar round for Sakkari, a measure of her impressive consistency this year. But when she takes on No.1 seed Swiatek on Saturday, she will be seeking to snap an unwanted streak. Sakkari has lost all five semifinals she has played in 2021 so far - and indeed nine in a row, dating back to her only career title at Rabat 2019.
Maria Sakkari's last 10 semifinal matches
Rabat 2019, d. Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4
Rome 2019, l. Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-4
San Jose 2019, l. Zheng Saisai 7-6(5), 6-2
St. Petersburg 2020, l. Elena Rybakina 3-6, 7-5, 6-1
Ostrava 2020, l. Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3
Abu Dhabi 2021, l. Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2
Grampians Trophy 2021, l. Anett Kontaveit 2-6, 6-3, [11-9]
Miami 2021, l. Bianca Andreescu 7-6(7), 3-6, 7-6(4)
Roland Garros 2021, l. Barbora Krejcikova 7-5, 4-6, 9-7
US Open 2021, l. Emma Raducanu 6-1, 6-4