HIROSHIMA, Japan - Qualifier Amanda Anisimova has stormed into her maiden WTA final at the Hana-Cupid Japan Women's Open, shocking No.1 seed Zhang Shuai 7-6(4), 7-5 in a one-hour, 48-minute feast of brilliant shotmaking.
"She's definitely a tough player, one of the toughest I've played," marvelled the teenager afterwards. "Overall, the match was really good - it was super-close and I was fighting for every point."
The American, who turned 17 just two weeks ago, becomes the youngest player to make a final since Donna Vekic competed in two - Tashkent 2012 and Birmingham 2013 - as a 16-year-old. Anisimova is also the third player born in 2001 to reach a final this season following the all-teenage showdown at the Moscow River Cup in July, in which Olga Danilovic defeated Anastasia Potapova to lift her first trophy - and will become the first player born in that year to crack the Top 100 on Monday.
Anisimova's achievements in 2018 are all the more remarkable considering her four-month layoff between March and July as she recovered from a foot fracture sustained in her first-round Miami win over Wang Qiang. Despite missing the entirety of the clay and grass swings, Anisimova's momentum has not stalled; since returning at San Jose, she has compiled a 12-3 win-loss record, taking her to 24-6 overall this season - and 11-4 in WTA main draws.
The manner in which Anisimova hit this latest milestone, via the fourth Top 50 win of her nascent career, was simply magnificent, demonstrating both phenomenal natural talent and a cool assurance in dealing with both an opponent at the top of her game and difficult weather conditions that belied her youth.
Afterwards, Anisimova said that she had been able to figure out Zhang as she went along. "I didn't receive any information about her [beforehand] - I was just focusing on myself, that's what I always do," she informed the press. "As the match goes, then I just see where her weaknesses are and how to play against her."
Despite two lengthy pauses for rain - the first in the second game, the second after the first point of the tiebreak - the two players put on a high-quality show in a thrilling first set that remained on a knife edge until the very end. Both players would vie to control points from the very start with an ultra-aggressive approach on return; taking the ball early and hammering it to every corner of the court, rallies tended to be breathtaking, high-octane rides.
Both Zhang and Anisimova were as adept at soaking up and redirecting pace as well as creating and injecting it, striking the ball with an astonishing accuracy given their low margins. The highlights were frequent and magnificent as an array of winners flowed from each player's racket: hooked forehand angles and sudden cannons down the line from the Chinese No.1, backhand rockets in all directions and impeccably timed drive volleys from the teenage American. Ultimately, Zhang would total 24 winners to 23 unforced errors, while Anisimova's tally was 25 to just 19.
The Zhang forehand would strike the first blow, though, as five stunners from that wing gained her the first break of serve in the third game. But in the eighth game, her young opponent upped the pace on return to level the score at 4-4, and four consecutive unreturned serves took her to the brink of the set.
But the two-time Guangzhou champion responded with solid serving, and a handful of errors put Anisimova down a break again.
With Zhang serving for the set, the 29-year-old made her way to set point, only for a forehand to drift wide. And if the Prague semifinalist had an Achilles heel today, it would be her double faults. Zhang would only commit four over the course of the match, but all were ill-timed. The first came down break point, ushering in a tiebreak; the second conceded Zhang's first minibreak lead in the tiebreak, paving the way for Anisimova to step up with a couple more gasp-inducing backhand winners and ultimately take the deciding game as Zhang's forehand broke down under the World No.134's pace.
After the first six games of the second set went to serve, with both players maintaining the ferocity and accuracy of their hitting, a third double fault hoved into view for the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinalist at 3-3 - this time, having already missed four game points, to go down break point for the first time in the set. One netted backhand later, and Anisimova was in the driving seat at a set and a break up.
With the finishing line in sight, the teenager blinked, with her normally reliable backhand going awry three times to immediately give the break back. But the wobble was brief as she immediately recovered her composure. Serving down 4-5, Anisimova would strike two laser winners down the line, one off each wing, to stave off a deciding set; two clean return winners, again once off each wing, would give her an opportunity on the Zhang serve in the next game. Facing break point, the Budapest, Acapulco and Nanchang quarterfinalist offered up her fourth, and most unfortunately timed, double fault.
This time, there would be no blinking for the preternaturally assured prodigy, who closed the match out to 30 on her first match point as a Zhang backhand went long. Asked about her mental poise afterwards, Anisimova attributed it to her mother, Olga. "She's really mentally strong, and I learn a lot from her every single day - I guess, I don't really know!" she laughed.
Anisimova will face another stern test in the final in the form of No.2 seed Hsieh Su-Wei - though she will be buoyed by the result of their only previous meeting, when she upset the Chinese Taipei player 6-0, 6-1 in the first round of the Honolulu 125K last November. Her approach to the final? "To go out and fight and have fun," according to the youngster - a mentality that has worked superbly for her so far this week.