No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty will meet No.7 seed Elena Rybakina in the Adelaide International 500 final after both players enjoyed straight-sets semifinal wins.
In a clash between the tournament's two previous winners, Barty dismissed defending champion and No.5 seed Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-4 in 1 hour and 27 minutes to keep alive her hopes of regaining the title she claimed in 2020. Earlier, Rybakina had taken 1 hour and 23 minutes to sweep past the unseeded Misaki Doi 6-4, 6-3 to reach the 8th WTA singles final of her burgeoning career.
Barty's victory moves the Australian into her 20th WTA-level final, and fifth on home soil. It was her second straight-sets defeat of Swiatek in as many encounters, having also defeated the Pole 7-5, 6-4 in the third round of Madrid last year.
Stat corner: Barty tallied both a higher number of winners than Swiatek (14 to 13) and a lower number of unforced errors (14 to 28). Beyond the numbers, though, the World No.1 also won the tactical battle.
One round earlier, Swiatek's backhand had been a key shot in her defeat of Victoria Azarenka. The 20-year-old had garnered more winners from that wing (17) than her signature forehand (10). But Barty effectively nullified the stroke, repeatedly resetting the point with biting slice responses. Consequently, Swiatek would find only one backhand winner.
Turning the match into a battle of the forehands meant that it was being played on Barty's terms, and she displayed superior point construction skills to emerge on top of most extended baseline exchanges. Barty also rose to the occasion on big points, saving both break points she faced and converting three of the five she brought up on Swiatek's delivery.
One of those, at the start of the second set, was set up via a deliciously angled return winner from Barty. A rattled Swiatek promptly double-faulted to fall behind 2-1. Though she battled hard to stay in touch throughout the remainder of the set, Barty was able to come through a series of tight service holds to maintain her lead and close out her second match point with a service winner.
In Barty's words: "Today I felt like I was probably able to look after my service games really well," she said afterward. "I felt like on Iga's service games I was able to get into most of them, which is important when you're playing someone who can dominate with that first ball and first strike. I felt like I was able to build pressure over time, making her play a lot of balls on her service games, not giving her too many cheapies.
"I think all in all I was able to stay in most games. I didn't get blown away with too many runs of two, three, four points in a row, which was a nice improvement from the last couple matches.
"Obviously with Iga, she has the ability to take the court away from you and take positioning away. As soon as I had an opportunity and a sniff, I needed to be able to take it, take the initiative.
"I felt I had a good balance tonight of being able to run and move and neutralise. As soon as I was able to get a little bit of time on the ball, I was able to create with the forehand, which is a good thing. It was what we were after tonight. I was able to do it pretty well."
Bringing it against the best: Barty's win adds to one of her most impressive stats over the past 12 months. It was her sixth straight win against a Top 20 player, and since the start of 2021 she has a 16-1 record against players in that echelon. The sole defeat was to Aryna Sabalenka in the Madrid final.
Home advantage: A two-time finalist in Sydney in 2018 and 2019, Barty claimed her first home-soil title at Adelaide 2020, and added the Yarra Valley Classic trophy last year. She has won 20 of her past 23 matches in Australia.
"It is exciting to be able to play well here in Australia," she said. "This is where I want to play my best tennis. I want to give myself an opportunity to play for titles in Australia. It's something really exciting to start the year off as an Aussie player in front of our home fans."
Having won her first major crown at Roland Garros 2019 and second at Wimbledon 2021, Barty's quest to become the first domestic champion of the Australian Open women's title since Chris O'Neil in 1978 will be one of this month's most compelling narratives. Barty's best performance to date has been a semifinal run in 2020.
Rybakina back to her best
Though Rybakina reached three semifinals last season (Eastbourne, the Olympic Games and the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic), the Kazakh was unable to win any of them. She reached a tour-leading five finals in 2020, but prior to this week, her most recent WTA singles final came at Strasbourg in September of that year.
Doi, who peaked at a career-high ranking of World No.30 in 2016, had also toppled Rybakina in their lone previous encounter, which came on the clay courts of Bastad in 2019.
But Rybakina was able to avenge that loss and return to a championship final for the first time in 15 months. Rybakina will now seek to add a third WTA singles title to her other trophies, which came at 2019 Bucharest and 2020 Hobart.
Words from the winner: "I'm very happy to be in the final," Rybakina said, in her post-match press conference. "It's just [the] start of the season and I feel more confidence, of course.
"[The key] was again the serve, I think. I served really well in the end of the first set and then second set. She played fast also. I just started a bit slow, maybe like yesterday. I have to improve it today for sure."
Power hitting from Rybakina 🔌— wta (@WTA) January 8, 2022
She's through to the Adelaide final with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Doi and awaits the winner of Barty vs. Swiatek. pic.twitter.com/qj3lgwUFc4
Stat corner: Rybakina slammed nine aces during her victory over 30-year-old Doi, bringing her ace total for the week to 31. The 22-year-old Kazakh had a sturdy 75 percent success rate behind her first serve, and was also impressive with her second serve, winning 70 percent of those points.
Doi, who was in the first WTA 500 semifinal of her career, was able to fend off seven break points, but still dropped serve four times. The Japanese player won only 39 percent of points behind her second serve.
Looking ahead: Barty and Rybakina's only previous meeting was also on Australian soil - a 6-3, 6-2 win for Barty in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open.
Rybakina had been coming off consecutive finals in Shenzhen and Hobart, losing to Ekaterina Alexandrova in the former but winning her second career title over Zhang Shuai in the latter. She took that momentum into Melbourne to reach the Round of 32 in a major for the first time and ultimately won 21 out of 25 matches in the first two months of 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Barty had been contesting her first Grand Slam as the top seed and went on to a career-best semifinal showing at the Australian Open before falling to eventual champion Sofia Kenin.