FORT WORTH, Texas -- As Maria Sakkari and Ons Jabeur lined up to play Friday night at the WTA Finals, Aryna Sabalenka was doing her best to ignore them.
“I’ll try not to watch it, forget about tennis for a while,” she said earlier.
But, Sabalenka added, “100 percent” she would be following the score on her phone.
The No.7 seed had defeated No.3 Jessica Pegula 6-3, 7-5 in the afternoon session to keep her hopes alive in the Nancy Richey Group. By winning her second round-robin match, she transferred the pressure to Jabeur, who needed to beat Sakkari in straight sets. In the complicated calculus of qualification, one set for Sakkari meant Sabalenka would be playing in Sunday’s semifinals.
As it turned out, Sabalenka probably hadn’t even settled into dinner when the matter was decided. When Sakkari won the first set 6-2 -- only 35 minutes into the match -- Sabalenka was through. She could enjoy a leisurely meal -- and a day off Saturday.
The final score was largely irrelevant, but for the record, Sakkari was a 6-2, 6-3 winner in a mere 69 minutes.
Sakkari, who had already won the Richey Group, guaranteed, crucially, that she would not meet No.1 seed Iga Swiatek in the semifinals. Sakkari will instead get the winner of Saturday’s winner-take-all contest between Caroline Garcia and Daria Kasatkina.
“I think I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Sakkari said in her on-court interview. “I’m trusting myself. I’m just fearless on the court. I’m enjoying myself here. There’s no secret behind how I’m playing, it was about time to start playing good again. I’m just very happy that it’s actually happening here.”
Sabalenka will face Tracy Austin Group winner Swiatek, the No.1 player for 30 weeks now -- and counting. It will be their sixth career meeting. Swiatek won the last four, including the recent US Open semifinal.
That first set was a sloppy one from Jabeur’s side; she had 11 unforced errors, most of them from the forehand side. But with Sakkari serving for the set at 5-1, Jabeur cracked back, breaking her at love. Fans could be forgiven for thinking back to their match earlier this year in Rome, when Jabeur rallied from a 6-1, 5-2 deficit to win without ever facing a match point.
Sakkari, who might have been thinking the same thing, responded by breaking Jabeur for the third time as another forehand found the net. The last player to qualify for the tournament in singles, Sakkari came into the event with only one Top 10 victory in 2022. And now she’s added three in just five days, beating Pegula, Sabalenka and now Jabeur.
Sakkari, who has struggled with confidence most of the year, looks like a different player. She’s won a career-best 40 main-draw matches this year.
“We played each other years ago, I think it was in Fed Cup,” Sakkari said of Jabeur. “I was joking with her that she was drop-shotting me all the time, playing in Montenegro, in the Group 3 stage, there was nobody there. Just normal players back then. But we both worked out way to the top.”
Sabalenka, meanwhile, has now won four straight matches against the No.3-ranked Pegula. The American is now 0-6 in singles and doubles here in Fort Worth. Her struggles underline the difficulty of qualifying in both disciplines.
“Of course I don’t regret playing both,” Pegula said. “We’re used to playing both, but at the end of the year -- I don’t know about her -- but I think it caught up with me. I keep telling myself that I had a great year. I don’t think I’ve lost this many matches in the past three months.”
Pegula will play Billie Jean King Cup next week and is already looking forward to a brief vacation in Napa Valley wine country with her husband and friends.
Pegula: "It's tough but that's tennis. You have one good week, and then you're right back at it the next. There's a lot of really high highs & low lows.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) November 5, 2022
"You end the year well and then I come here, lose all my matches. This is the same [# of losses I've had] in like 3 months." pic.twitter.com/U1vtB0ot9I
Heading into her match against Pegula, Sabalenka knew a straight-sets win would greatly enhance her chances of advancement.
“I keep saying to myself, ‘Just stay focused, keep fighting -- it doesn’t matter, two or three sets, just get the win, the extra points,’” Sabalenka said. “At the end was a little pressure because you try to not think about this, but this thing stays in your mind. I’m happy that I was able to finish it in two sets.
“In the beginning, I said to my team that I’d prefer the second match to 100 percent know what I have to do to get through.”
In the end, even without that control of her situation, it all worked out.