Top seed Maria Sakkari of Greece booked a spot in her first final of the season as she grinded past Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-4 in a gripping semifinal battle at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy on Saturday.
It will be a final between the top two seeds as Sakkari will face Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in a clash of Top 10 players. 2nd-seeded Kontaveit toppled No.7 seed Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-4 in the second semifinal to reach her first final of the year as well.
Fast facts: Seeded No.1 at a WTA event for the first time, Sakkari needed to win one of the longest matches of the year in a grueling 3 hours and 4 minutes to move into her fourth career WTA singles final. Sakkari fought back from a break down in the third set to attain victory.
World No.7 Sakkari has now gone one step beyond her previous career-best St. Petersburg showing, which was a run to the 2020 semifinals.
Sakkari also has taken a 2-1 lead in her head-to-head with Begu. Begu had won their first meeting in Miami in 2016, but Sakkari leveled their rivalry with a quarterfinal victory at 2018 Seoul before moving ahead with her triumph this week.
⚔️ 12 previous meetings ⚔️— wta (@WTA) February 12, 2022
🥊 H2H tied at 6-6 🥊
Who will take lucky number 13🍀 and be crowned @Formula_TX champion ? pic.twitter.com/H5IHOigMZA
Begu was denied a trip to her ninth career WTA singles final and a seventh match-win over a Top 10 player. Begu has gone 0-10 against the Top 10 since her last win over a player in that echelon, which came over Jelena Ostapenko at 2018 Madrid.
Next week on the WTA: Dubai 2022: Everything you need to know
Words from Sakkari: "It was a very tough match," Sakkari said afterwards. "I think Begu played really, really well. The level of the match was super-high. I had to come up with some very tough shots and very physical tennis, but I’m very glad I did it, and I’m super excited to be in the final here.
"As I mentioned on court, it’s one of my favorite tournaments, so I’m just very excited that I was able this year to reach the final. I still have one more match to go, and I’m going to try my best to win the tournament."
Tale of the match: The last three games of the first set went to the returner, with Sakkari the beneficiary as she claimed the one-set lead. Begu notched an early 2-0 lead in the second set, but Sakkari broke back for 2-2, and the Greek edged to a game away from victory after holding at love for 5-4.
Victory SEALED!— wta (@WTA) February 12, 2022
🇬🇷 @mariasakkari holds off a spirited Begu comeback to prevail 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-4 in the @Formula_TX semifinal. pic.twitter.com/lUHr3RTsc9
But pinpoint hitting by Begu at the end of increasingly complex rallies kept her in the hunt, as she came back from 15-30 to hold for 5-5. The pair moved into a tiebreak where Sakkari could never get in front, and Begu grabbed two set points after slamming an overhead winner for 6-4. Begu converted the first of those chances to level the match.
Suddenly, the momentum was with Begu as she broke Sakkari for a 2-0 lead in the final set. However, a streaky set saw Sakkari break the Romanian twice in a row to take her own break lead at 3-2, before Begu returned to level footing with a break for 3-3. A topsy-turvy stretch ended with Sakkari ahead by a break at 5-4 and serving for the match.
In that game, two forehand winners gave Sakkari two match points, but Begu swatted both chances away, and the Romanian held a break point to extend the match further. But another strong forehand got Sakkari out of that jam, and she closed out the match with a passing winner.
Sakkari was slightly sturdier converting break points in the end, going 7-for-13 while Begu was 5-for-12. Sakkari was marginally better returning as well, winning 40 percent of Begu's first-service points and 56 percent off of the Romanian's second serve.
Anett advances: Kontaveit had a much quicker semifinal victory over Ostapenko, with the World No.9 clinching victory after an hour and 11 minutes of blistering hitting by both players.
Kontaveit has now won an incredible 19 straight matches indoors, which includes title runs at Ostrava, Moscow, and Cluj-Napoca at the end of last season. Kontaveit is the first player with 19 or more consecutive indoor wins since Justine Henin won 22 straight from 2007 Stuttgart through 2010 Stuttgart.
Read more: Stats Corner breaks down Anett Kontaveit's indoor winning streak
The Estonian played a clean and precise match against 2017 Roland Garros champion Ostapenko, ranked World No.25. Kontaveit finished the tilt with 29 winners to just 16 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Ostapenko's fiery game garnered her 38 winners, but she also had 41 unforced errors on the day.
The streak continues 👉— wta (@WTA) February 12, 2022
The Baltic battle goes the way of the No.2 seed @AnettKontaveit_ 🇪🇪#FormulaTX pic.twitter.com/x1x70Hm91Q
"It was a very competitive match," said Kontaveit. "I really had to bring very good energy to come through on top today. She’s a very aggressive player, so I had to be really ready for her big shots, and just be as consistent and take my chances when I could. I felt like I did that really well today. I was very positive and had good energy and worked really hard today."
Ostapenko got off to a hot start, leaping to a 3-0 lead. But Kontaveit kicked into high gear from there, picking off winners while reducing her miscues to almost nil as she reeled off eight games in a row to lead 6-3, 2-0.
Ostapenko pulled back into the match in the latter stages of the second set, saving three break points to hold for 3-3 as her rockets found the lines more regularly. However, at 5-4, Kontaveit found some impressive return winners, often from the backhand side, to break Ostapenko once more and claim another indoor victory.
A deadlocked dozen: Sakkari and Kontaveit have had a hefty rivalry on court, with 12 meetings split evenly between them. They faced off an incredible five times last season, with Kontaveit winning three of those encounters in 2021.
"Tomorrow’s match against Maria, she’s a very good player, a very consistent player," said Kontaveit. "It’s going to be very tough, but I think I have to bring my best game, be ready for everything, and be positive with myself and fight through all the situations that are coming my way tomorrow."