FORT WORTH, Texas -- In a tournament stuffed with surprises, Sunday’s semifinals produced two more.
After round-robin play saw No.2 seed Ons Jabeur, No.3 Jessica Pegula and No.4 Coco Gauff all depart, No.7 Aryna Sabalenka stunned No.1 Iga Swiatek 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 in the semifinals, winning for the first time in the past five matches. That ended Swiatek’s run of 15 consecutive wins against Top 10 opponents.
WTA Finals: Semifinal results
- Garcia charges past Sakkari to reach final in Fort Worth
- Sabalenka upsets Swiatek to reach WTA Finals championship match
Earlier, No.6 Caroline Garcia dropped No.5 Maria Sakkari. Both Sakkari and Swiatek raced through the round-robin stage 3-0, winning all six of their sets.
And so, the WTA Finals championship features a pair of sometimes overlooked streaky veteran players looking for the biggest title of their careers. It’s the raw, unadulterated power of Sabalenka versus the unrelenting aggression of Garcia in Monday’s final (8 p.m. CT) at Dickies Arena.
While Sabalenka has been hovering in or around the Top 10 for four years now, Garcia has come further, faster, than any WTA Tour player in the past five months. She was ranked No.75 in mid-June and now, after a definitive semifinal victory over Maria Sakkari, she’s going to finish the season no worse than a career-best No.5.
Garcia was ranked No.17 before her semifinal run at the US Open, which launched her into the Top 10. She likened that leap to the mind-boggling week by Holger Rune that sent the 19-year-old into the ATP Top 10 after winning Sunday’s Rolex Paris Masters.
“I thought it was big to do [No.] 17 to Top 10,” Garcia said. “But I saw Rune below the Top 100 -- to the Top 10, so I thought, 'OK, maybe it’s normal.’”
Rest assured, this is not normal.
That’s precisely why we have Courtney Nguyen and Greg Garber here to make the case for each of this year’s finalists in Fort Worth.
The concept of confidence can be as slippery as the baseline on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, but Garcia definitely has it.
As you know, Courtney, Garcia was the only player in the stellar field assembled in Fort Worth to beat World No.1 Iga Swiatek this year. It happened on July 29 in Warsaw, Poland. Garcia -- in the midst of her second-half tear -- defeated Swiatek 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.
29 - Caroline Garcia is the first player to reach the final at WTA Finals after turning 29 since Venus Williams in 2017. Perseverance.@WTA @WTA_insider @WTAFinals pic.twitter.com/rpPEYHh61Q— OptaAce (@OptaAce) November 6, 2022
Garcia went on to take the title and then, in Cincinnati and at the US Open, she won 11 of 12 matches, winning a title and reaching the first major semifinal of her career. At the age of 29, she’s embraced her forward-thinking, ultra-aggressive approach and seems to be all in.
“She plays one way,” Sakkari said of Garcia. “She’s never going to take two steps backward. There’s no one out there who can play like her. Clearly, I cannot play like her. It’s risky, and it works for her now. It looks like that’s the style of game that she wants to keep playing.”
Patience might not be among Garcia’s virtues, but five years after her last appearance at the WTA Finals, she is clearly a different player.
#FLYWITHCARO #FLYWITHCARO #FLYWITHCARO@CaroGarcia ✈️ @WTAFinals pic.twitter.com/zqcXSsNP9Y— wta (@WTA) November 6, 2022
“I guess I’m five years older, maybe five years wiser, I don’t know,” she said. “You try to learn from everything. We got some tough experience, a couple of injuries the last couple of years. Try to learn from everything and I’ve got a big team behind me, supporting me being positive when I was a little bit negative myself.”
It’s all positive now -- and imagine the Frenchwoman’s emotions when she learned that Sabalenka had beaten Swiatek. Only four days ago, Swiatek handled Garcia with relative ease. Sabalenka is another matter altogether. They met three times in 2018, with Sabalenka winning two matches. But, the only result since belongs to Garcia, a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 victory over Sabalenka in the Cincinnati semifinals.
Bit of a swing, no?
“Aryna is a very powerful player, huge serve, huge forehand,” Garcia said. "She looks like she’s playing some great tennis here so far. We know that she’s very all the way showing a lot of emotion, going for her shots. I played her a couple of months ago in Cincinnati.
“It’s different. I’ll have to put pressure on her, obviously. I will try to play my game.” -- Greg Garber
As you know, Greg, it's been a free-swinging, free-spirited Sabalenka in Fort Worth. Yes, she's been without her serve all year. Yes, she's let her emotions get the better of her to lose from winning positions. Yes, she was in danger of not winning a title for the first time since 2017.
Sabalenka fought through it all, kept a good sense of humor about her travails and, as she said, she won the battle against herself. Now she'll finish in the Top 5 for a second straight season.
And so, what started as the worst season of Sabalenka's career is now one win away from ending with the biggest title of her career with wins over the current top three ranked players.
"This year I definitely became more [of a] fighter than I used to be," Sabalenka said before the tournament. "I was fighting with myself, which is a completely different fight, and I learned a lot about myself."
Sabalenka should go into Monday's final full of confidence and feeling she has nothing to lose. It's offense vs. offense against Garcia, but the way Sabalenka and Garcia go about deploying their aggression is markedly different. And that's where Sabalenka has the edge.
3 - Aryna Sabalenka is the 3rd player to win against #1, #2 and #3 in the world in a tournament in 2000s after Venus Williams at the WTA Finals 2008 (v Safina, Jankovic and S. Williams) and Serena Williams in Miami 2002 (v Hingis, V. Williams and Capriati). Trips.@WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/94R9qVvWUO— OptaAce (@OptaAce) November 7, 2022
Garcia's offensive game relies more on timing and taking the ball early to rush her opponents. It's a beautiful game, but it has little margin for error. If Garcia's game is more of a blitz, Sabalenka's is a barrage.
While more than capable and comfortable at the net, Sabalenka makes her money with her heavy hitting from the baseline, which can vary from heavy topspin to more flattened-out speed.
Of course, all eyes will be on the Sabalenka serve. The double faults -- she hit nine against Swiatek -- can still come at inopportune times, but she's learned not to let them rattle her. And frankly, Sabalenka's serve held up well against the most dominant returner in the game in Swiatek.
She fired 12 aces and won 68% of her first-serve points. Swiatek still broke four times, but Sabalenka minimized the damage by breaking six times. Importantly, just as she did in her three-set win over Jabeur in group play, Sabalenka played with patience and discipline. She didn't go for winners every chance she got and she didn't hit herself out of contention. She played a gritty match and let her opponent feel the pressure. They did. And they buckled.
If Sabalenka can approach the match the same way she has all week in Fort Worth, she'll be line-dancing at Billy Bob's with an 11th career title under her arm. -- Courtney Nguyen