CANCUN, Mexico -- No.4 Elena Rybakina kept her chances alive of advancing out of the Bacalar Group after defeating No.9 Maria Sakkari 6-0, 6-7(4), 7-6(2) at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun.
With a 1-1 record, Rybakina's victory moved her into a tie with No.1 Aryna Sabalenka for second place in the group. Sabalenka took her first loss of the tournament to No.5 Jessica Pegula earlier in the evening. Rybakina's win assured Pegula would finish as group winner and advance to Saturday's semifinal.
The winner of Thursday's final group match between Rybakina and Sabalenka, a rematch of the Australian Open and Indian Wells finals, will determine the second qualifier. Sakkari is eliminated.
Rybakina's win is her seventh Top 10 win of the season, putting her third behind Iga Swiatek (9) and Coco Gauff (8) for the best mark on tour.
Sakkari confessed to feeling out of form and lacking in confidence after her 6-0, 6-1 loss to Sabalenka in her opener. Her lack of rhythm carried over into the 22-minute first set.
"Obviously a very slow start," Sakkari said. "I would say very tense, very stressed. Probably the result and the score of the previous match was a little bit into my head.
Disappointed and frustrated after the first set, Sakkari sat at her bench and muttered, "I'm done," to coach Tom Hill. But the outburst was the perfect release for the Greek. After getting broken three times in the first set, Sakkari saved three break points early in the second set to stay with Rybakina.
After 12 consecutive holds, the duo headed to a tiebreak. Rybakina led 2-0 but could not protect her lead. Playing steady but aggressive tennis from the baseline, Sakkari stormed back to take the tiebreak and force a decider.
8 - Elena Rybakina is now the player with the joint-most wins against the WTA Finalists 2023 this season (eight, level with Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka). Elitist.#WTAFinals | @WTA @WTA_insider @WTAFinals pic.twitter.com/fA6OQbGFtq— OptaAce (@OptaAce) November 1, 2023
Serving at 4-4, 15-30, Rybakina hooked a forehand wide to give Sakkari two chances to take the game and serve for the match. But the 2022 Wimbledon champion played her most resilient tennis of the match to out-rally Sakkari from the baseline and edge ahead 5-4.
"I remember that forehand I missed in the net on, I think it was 4-all, 30-40 on her game," Sakkari said. "I went for a bigger shot than I should. It was a high bounce, I shouldn't have tried to hit it as flat. I think also a crucial game was the first one of the third set. Things would have been different, but she made good first serves. Yeah, I had chances."
In the deciding tiebreak, Rybakina once again built an early lead, but this time she refused to relinquish it. As she maintained her baseline pressure, Sakkari's errors came. After winning the first six points of the tiebreak, Rybakina closed out the 2-hour and 24-minute win.
"My biggest win today was that I overcame that fear on the court," Sakkari said. "I was points away from perhaps winning that match. I thought that I was going to go down as not playing good and finishing the season not in a good way, but today's performance was promising."
Rybakina has won her last two meetings against Sabalenka, having won at Indian Wells and three weeks ago at the China Open. Sabalenka won their biggest match of the year, coming back to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final of the Australian Open.
"Now it's gonna be either you win and you stay or you lose and you go back home," Rybakina said. "So it's kind of now the same as the other tournaments. It's not going to be easy, and I'm going to try to do my best."