A Sydney Tennis Classic semifinal showdown between two of last year's new Top 10 players proved to be as stunning as their reputations would predict, and in the end, World No.4 Barbora Krejcikova edged World No.7 Anett Kontaveit 0-6, 6-4, 7-6(12) to earn a spot in the final.
She will take on No.5 seed Paula Badosa for the title after the Spaniard delivered a performance of supreme quality to defeat Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Reigning Roland Garros singles and doubles champion Krejcikova had to stave off a whopping seven match points before finally converting her fifth match point after 2 hours and 30 minutes of toe-to-toe tennis. The result moves the Czech into her sixth WTA singles final.
The winner speaks: "I think from both sides it was a really, really tough match," Krejcikova said, in her post-match press conference. "I think we played wonderful tennis. It was very, very tight, and I'm really happy that I was able to hold the nerves better and that I won this match.
"I was expecting it was going to be really difficult, and I know that Anett, she is playing really great tennis and she's very aggressive. I was just playing, just trying to fight for every single ball. When I had those match points down, I was just trying to figure out how to build up the point and how to win the point, and that was everything that I was focusing on.
"I had to change my game style a little bit more [to turn the match around] ... to start playing aggressive the point from my side. Otherwise she was just killing me."
Fast facts: Both newcomers to the season-ending WTA Finals last year, Krejcikova and Kontaveit had their only previous meeting there in Guadalajara, where Kontaveit of Estonia prevailed in straight sets en route to the final.
That victory was part of Kontaveit's stellar year-end run, where she won 28 of her last 32 matches. She finished the 2021 season ranked first on tour in hard-court match-wins.
But on Friday in Sydney, Krejcikova turned the tables despite being steamrolled in the first set, and prevented Kontaveit from reaching her fourth final in a row.
Instead, it was Krejcikova who ended a five-match losing streak against her fellow Top 10 players and claimed her fifth career win against members of that cohort.
Back-and-forth match: Kontaveit had to save three break points in the very first game of the match, but once out of that jam, the Estonian cruised through the opening set, bageling Krejcikova after only 29 minutes of play. However, Krejcikova recovered to win the second set after stellar return winners gave her the critical break at 4-4.
In the third set, Krejcikova grabbed the first break to lead 2-1, but Kontaveit struck back immediately for 2-2, and the fight was on. Kontaveit earned her first three match points on Krejcikova's serve at 6-5, but the Czech powerfully brushed each of the trio away to line up the decisive third-set tiebreak.
In the breaker, Krejcikova led 6-4, garnering her first two match points, but Kontaveit used brilliant backhands to level at 6-6. The pair battled all the way to 12-12, at which juncture Kontaveit had lost out on seven match points, and Krejcikova had failed to convert four.
On the next point, Kontaveit fired a rally backhand wide to give Krejcikova a 13-12 lead and a fifth match point. At last, Krejcikova claimed victory in a classic encounter after a Kontaveit forehand return sailed long.
Badosa turns tables on Kasatkina in Generation 1997 clash
Another 2021 WTA Finals debutante, Badosa also kept up her momentum from last autumn to reach her third career final.
The World No.9, who lifted trophies in Belgrade and Indian Wells last year, faced a generational peer whom she had not played since their U16 days. Kasatkina, also born in 1997, had won a fourth-round encounter 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the 2013 European Junior Championships in Moscow en route to the title.
Eight years later, Badosa was able to take revenge with a near-flawless display of heavy hitting that included 26 winners to her opponent's 12. She laid down a marker with a phenomenal start, winning 14 of the first 16 points and leaping out to a 4-0 lead. Similarly, she was able to overwhelm Kasatkina at the start of the second set to move to 5-0.
The No.26-ranked Russian, competing in her second consecutive semifinal after reaching that stage at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 last week, played her best tennis at the tail end of each set. A backhand winner saved a match point at 5-0 in the second set; free-swinging forehands retrieved one break back in both sets.
But the gulf was too much to make up, and Badosa's level never dropped. Coming up with some of her most bruising backhands to quell the putative comeback, Badosa broke Kasatkina to seal each set.
Badosa will take a 2-0 head-to-head advantage over Krejcikova into the final, having scored identical 6-1, 7-5 wins in the second round of Madrid and fourth round of Indian Wells last year. The 24-year-old is also 2-0 in WTA finals compared to Krejcikova's 3-2 record.