GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- No.2 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara mounted two strong comebacks to defeat No.4 seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Demi Schuurs, 6-4, 7-6(5) on Day 3 at the 2021 Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara.
That win guaranteed the Japanese duo a place in the semifinals. The second doubles match of the day was a battle to avoid elimination: No.7 seeds Darija Jurak and Andreja Klepac triumphed 6-7(10), 7-6(4), [10-5] in a one-hour, 54-minute nailbiter over No.5 seeds Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai. The result not only meant that Stosur and Zhang cannot advance to the last four, but ensured that Aoyama and Shibahara will finish top in Group Tenochtitlán.
Aoyama and Shibahara, who are making their Finals debut, entered the match with a 2-1 record against Melichar-Martinez/Schuurs, with both of their wins coming this season. Each time they have beaten the American-Dutch team, they have gone on to win the title (Yarra Valley Classic and Eastbourne).
Melichar-Martinez and Schuurs jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead with aggressive play at the net that put the No.2 seeds on their heels. But there was no panic for Aoyama and Shibahara, who broke Schuurs to get back on serve at 4-4 and then surged forward.
After a hold from Shibahara to go ahead 5-4, the Japanese team earned its first set point after Melichar-Martinez double-faulted at 4-5, 40-30. They converted off a strong second-serve return from Shibahara towards Schuurs at the net, which was punched well long.
The second set began the same as the first with Melichar-Martinez and Schuurs once again pocketing an early break to lead 2-0. But the No.4 seeds could not hold on to their lead, as Aoyama and Shibahara leveled the set at 2-2 and the teams proceeded to exchange service holds.
Aoyama and Shibahara would earn three match points with Melichar-Martinez serving at 4-5, 15-40, but failed to convert. They were kept at bay on a key rally at 30-40 when Melichar-Martinez struck a pitch-perfect defensive lob that landed on the baseline and earned an error from Shibahara.
After an exchange of holds, wherein Melichar-Martinez and Schuurs saved two more match points for a running total of five, the teams moved to the tiebreak. Back-to-back double-faults from Melichar-Martinez gave Aoyama and Shibahara a quick 3-0 lead, which Shibahara extended to 4-0 with a strong poach off the return.
Melichar-Martinez would close the gap to 3-4, but a perfect Shibahara lob winner earned the Japanese team two more match points at 6-3. Melichar-Martinez helped wipe away two with an ace, but Aoyama and Shibahara finally converted on their eighth match point to seal a 2-0 record in Group Tenochtitlán and a 3-0 record over the American-Dutch team in 2021.
Like Aoyama and Shibahara, Jurak and Klepac are also WTA Finals debutantes - and at the ages of 37 and 35 respectively, have had to wait longer than most to reach these heights. But the Croatian-Slovenian duo seized their opportunity with gusto against US Open champions Stosur and Zhang, playing some scintillating tennis and showing tremendous fortitude.
All four players served strongly. There were no breaks in the first set - indeed, there was only one break point, saved by Stosur in the first game. In the second stanza, a mid-set exchange of breaks between Jurak and Stosur was the interruption to the flow of holds.
It all came down to the tiebreaks. The first set culminated in a mini-epic that saw Stosur and Zhang save two set points before finally seizing their fourth after Jurak netted a forehand. But the less experienced pair stayed strong to level the match, taking their third set point after a deep Klepac forehand elicited a shanked Stosur backhand that ricocheted straight into an unsuspecting Zhang's back.
Jurak and Klepac saved their best for last. The super-tiebreak saw them win the two best points of the match with spectacular all-court scrambling, and Klepac sealed their first match point with a service winner.
"I'm very happy especially," said Klepac afterwards. "It's my first win at the Finals so finally I break a barrier!"