GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Aryna Sabalenka tapped into the boisterous crowd support in Mexico to keep her hopes alive to qualify for the semifinals at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara. The World No.2 mounted an inspired comeback to defeat No.5 seed Iga Swiatek 2-6, 6-2, 7-5.
The win moves Sabalenka to 1-1 in the Chichén Itzá group and eliminated Swiatek's from semifinal contention. Sabalenka will face No.4 seed Maria Sakkari in the final round-robin match Monday, with the winner joining group winner Paula Badosa in the semifinals.
In the first meeting between the two tournament debutantes, both women came into Saturday night's encounter with hopes of putting aside their disappointing opening matches. On Thursday, Swiatek lost her third match of the season to No.4 Maria Sakkari, 6-2, 6-4, while Sabalenka dropped 10 consecutive games in a 6-2, 6-0 loss against No.7 seed Paula Badosa.
"After the first match I just didn't want to do the same mistake. I just didn't want to give up again," Sabalenka said. "I just kept saying to myself, You have to put this ball in somehow. If you don't feel well, doesn't matter, you just have to fight and you just have to try your best."
Tale of the match: Sabalenka and Swiatek held five straight times in the opening set before either player saw her first break point. That came as Sabalenka served at 2-3 and played a disastrous game to get broken at love. The Belarusian opened with an overhead miss and a double fault. Swiatek then earned triple-break point with a strong second serve return and then Sabalenka struck her second double fault of the game to fall behind 4-2.
With Sabalenka struggling to find her range, Swiatek stayed steady to reel off the last four games of the set. While Sabalenka served at just 42%, Swiatek won 79% of her second-serve return points in the first set, punctuated by a second break to seal the set in 34 minutes.
Turning point: Serving at 1-2 in the second set, Sabalenka connected on a crisp 1-2 punch on her opening point, pounding a forehand winner that seemed to settle the top seed. After holding to 2-2, she began to engage with the otherwise non-partisan crowd, and as the boisterous crowd rallied around her, Sabalenka's game quickly elevated.
"Of course, with the crowd, I felt amazing," Sabalenka said. "I just enjoy every second on the court. I mean, I have never felt this support before. I even felt goosebumps."
After serving well under 50% in the first set, Sabalenka served at 62% in the second set, losing just two points behind her first serve. Off the ground, she successfully pushed Swiatek well behind the baseline to defend, opening up the angles as her powerful shots landed more consistently.
Riding the momentum along with the crowd, Sabalenka broke Swiatek twice to build a run of her own. Serving to close out the set, Sabalenka gamely faced down three break points, acing Swiatek on two of the three to seal the set, running off the last five games to force the match into a decider.
How the match was won: Sabalenka continued her surge early in the third set, breaking Swiatek with a big forehand winner to lead 2-1. But the lead was short-lived, as Swiatek broke back immediately to level at 2-2.
Sabalenka and Swiatek proceeded to coolly exchange holds over the next six games. Serving at 4-5, Sabalenka found herself two points from the loss, but served her way out of a 30-all jam with a kicking second serve that Swiatek could not control and then an eighth ace on the night to level the match at 5-5.
After surviving a tight service game, Sabalenka earned a 0-30 lead in her next return game and broke Swiatek when the Pole misfired on back-to-back forehands from deuce. With a 6-5 lead, Sabalenka served out the win in a thrilling 2 hours and 17 minutes.
Swiatek pleased with her recovery: "I worked pretty hard the past two days to understand a little bit more of why I felt so bad during the match against Maria," Swiatek said after the match. "I don't want to make excuses or something. It's pretty hard to talk about that because I know in sports it's not that often. But like PMS really hit me that day. I'm telling this for any young girl who doesn't know what's going on. Don't worry, it's normal.
"I think I played really good, but for sure I didn't have a lot of rhythm because also Aryna is that kind of player that doesn't let you get that rhythm. I hit a lot of frames, I'm aware of that.
"But looking at how I felt when I came here, two days ago, also yesterday, I feel like I kind of won today, 2-1 maybe, because I won against my stress and a little bit of fear, but I lost against Aryna. In the end, I'm going to think this is a positive day, and also I can get experience from all that stuff."
Sabalenka on the lessons learned from the US Open: "I remember on that match against Leylah [Fernandez in the US Open semifinals], close to the end of the match I was really not like disappointed, but I was really sad about the atmosphere. It's not against me, they were just supporting her. I was kind of like asking them to support [me]. After that I felt like maybe sometimes you just have to ask for support, it's nothing bad."
"I had a lot of situations when people were supporting my opponent more than me. So, yeah, this time I felt so good when people are supporting you."
Next for Sabalenka: Sabalenka owns a 4-1 record against Sakkari, with their last meeting coming in January in Abu Dhabi. Sabalenka prevailed 6-2, 6-3 en route to her first title of the season.
"I'm really happy that I have this chance to get through this group," Sabalenka said. Maria is a tough opponent. She's a great fighter. It's always great matches against her. It's always big battles. I'm just really looking forward. I'm really happy that I have this chance.
"I'll just do my best. I'll just bring everything I have on the court. No matter what, I will fight. I'll not do the same mistake like I did in the first match. This time I will never give up again."