Jasmine Paolini held off Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 7-6(6) in an all-unseeded semifinal at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to reach her first career WTA 1000-level final. 

Paolini, who saved six set points in the second set Friday, won the match in 1 hour and 57 minutes.

"I gave you a little bit of drama at the end," Paolini said with a laugh in her on-court interview.

The Italian held her first match point at 5-4 in the second set and saved four of the six set points she faced with clean forehand winners before converting her second match point in the tiebreak.

Much was on the line for both surprise semifinalists, not least a Top 20 debut in next week's edition of the WTA rankings. Cirstea, 33, was bidding to become the second oldest player to enter the Top 20 for the first time (following 35-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in 2017) and to reach a WTA 1000 final for the first time in 11 years.

But it was Paolini who maintained her perfect record against the Romanian, improving to 3-0 overall, to book her spot in her fifth Hologic WTA Tour final, first since Monastir last October and first above WTA 250 level. It isn't the first significant milestone of 2024 for the 28-year-old, who also reached the fourth round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open last month.

These career-best performances at both Grand Slam and WTA 1000 level build on a fine 2023 for Paolini, who received a nomination in December's WTA Awards for Most Improved Player after raising her ranking from No.71 last April. She becomes the fifth Italian woman to reach a final at WTA 1000 level or over, following Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Flavia Pennetta and Camila Giorgi.

Paolini will face qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, who upset Iga Swiatek, in the final.

How Paolini held off Cirstea: Through the first set-and-a-half, Paolini was firmly in control. The World No.26 bossed the majority of the baseline exchanges with her formidable forehand against an error-strewn Cirstea to advance to a 6-2, 3-1 lead. Even after dropping serve for the first time in the match, Paolini quickly pounded another pair of forehand winners to regain the break for 4-2.

But she was unable to take two points to hold for 5-2. Cirstea, who had saved six match points to come back from 6-2, 5-1 down against Marketa Vondrousova in the quarterfinals, needed no further encouragement to attempt a similar turnaround. At 5-4 down, Cirstea played her best point of the match -- finishing with a backhand winner down the line -- to save match point.

The crucial game came as Cirstea attempted to serve out the set at 6-5. It was a nail-biting tug-of-war between the two players across seven deuces, and Paolini had to save five set points alone in it. Continuing to stay on the front foot, she found forehand winners on three of those, then converted her fifth break point with another forehand winner on the return.

The ensuing tiebreak was also narrowly contested, and at 6-5 down Paolini found her 27th winner of the match -- again on the forehand -- to save a sixth set point. Two points later, she sealed victory on her second match point as a Cirstea backhand drifted wide.

In Paolini's words: "I had a chance on 4-2, 40-15, but she was starting to play better, to hit winners. And me, maybe I stop a little bit move the legs.

"The last two matches I play against her, more or less was the same score. I won the first set, then the second set was a little bit complicated, then I won again the third set. 

I was like, 'Please, if I'm going to lose this set, start again in the third and to move and to play deep again, to push again.' But I was trying to just stay in the present. Was tough. 

"She's playing really well when she's little bit down in the score. She's trying to hit more winners, to play faster. I was trying. C'mon, she cannot make it two times in a row. No, I'm joking.

"I just say to myself to move the legs and try to keep hitting hard the ball, because if not she's going to move me and she's going to hit the winner first."