INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - Top seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina will play for their second BNP Paribas Open title as a pair after knocking out reigning Australian Open champions Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4, 6-2, reaching their third final in six years on Thursday.
Vesnina is one match away from a fifth title in Indian Wells - fourth in doubles - while Makarova last won in the California desert with her longtime partner back in 2013, at the start of their partnership.
Babos and Mladenovic reunited at the start of 2018 after two seasons apart to scintillating results, capturing their first major title together at the expense of the Russians, who were aiming to complete the Career Golden Grand Slam in Melbourne.
"They’re a tough team because they’re both aggressive with big serves and big groundstrokes," Vesnina explained after the match. "We had to be ready for this kind of game, we had to stick together, and be ready to volley, because the ball was coming really fast."
The Russians recovered from an early deficit to race out to a 5-3 lead in the opening set, ultimately serving it out and nabbing an even bigger advantage in the second to secure victory after 68 minutes on Stadium 2.
"We were down 2-0 with a break, and they started pretty well. At the beginning we were still trying to find the rhythm. Once we were even in the score, it became a really close first set, and there were just a couple of points that we were able to win. We maybe got a bit lucky there, and then the second set went completely to our side."
Eight games came down to deciding points, with Makarova and Vesnina winning half but dominating the most important and laughing off a errant serve from the former when the duo led by a double break in the second.
"They were all pretty good except for my great double fault!" Makarova said. "It was a lot of deciding points, and they were very nice points, too - not too many mistakes! We were staying aggressive, because it doesn’t matter what the score is, everyone was fighting. We’re very happy about that."
Standing between the top seeds and a first title of 2018 is an upstart team of veterans in Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova.
"We know them both individually," Vesnina said. "We’ve played so many times against Barbora and Su-Wei. We some of their match because they played before us, and that was another close match, a tie-break in the first set. They’re a great team; they’re in the finals of Indian Wells, so that means they’re playing well this week. We’ll try to show our best tennis, and we’ll need our best tennis to win this kind of title."
The pair were a last-minute entry into the doubles draw but have knocked out two of the discipline's most notable teams in Chan Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan, and on Thursday dispatched Miami Open champions Gabriela Dabrowski and Xu Yi-Fan, 7-6(2), 6-3.
"Isn’t it amazing?" a breathless Strycova told me after the match. "I feel great! It’s really nice to be on court with Su-Wei. We just enjoy ourselves, and are trying different things on court. It’s working, and we don’t have any pressure on ourselves. We’re just enjoying playing together."
Unseeded though they may be, Hsieh is a former doubles No.1 enjoying a stellar start to her season in singles and doubles, reaching the second week of the Australian Open in January. Strycova began the season with Lucie Safarova while Bethanie Mattek-Sands continued healing her injured knee, and put on another solid performance despite a slow start against the No.3 seeds.
"It was very tough; we were losing 3-5 in the first set. The key was moving all the time and staying active at the net, and trying to serve well. In these kinds of matches, you have to go for everything and be ready, because they’re such a good team that crosses a lot. They don’t give you much rhythm. We also returned very well today."
Saturday's final will feature on one side the tour's longest-running elite team, and the other, a team playing for the first time this week, something Strycova gives them the advantage.
"I don’t want to say we have nothing to lose, but more experienced teams know what they expect from one another, and we still don’t. It’s also nice because we know each others’ games individually, and after four matches, we know a little bit more."