WUHAN, China -- In her Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open debut, World No.20 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus reached her fourth final of the season, and the biggest of her career, by defeating last year's Wuhan runner-up, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, 7-6(2), 6-4 in the semifinals on Friday.
"I didn't expect this level from me," Sabalenka said, during her post-match press conference. "I'm so happy that I am on this level. Now I really like to fight. I think this is, you know, why it's going really fast."
Barty took down Sabalenka in their only prior meeting, in the first round of this year's Australian Open. But 20-year-old Sabalenka served up notice that her breakthrough season since that point has turned her into a force to be reckoned with, ousting the World No.17 after one hour and 25 minutes of play to move into the championship match.
Sabalenka recovered from a 5-3 deficit in the first set to clinch the straight-set victory and become the youngest-ever player to reach the Wuhan Open final in the event's five-year history. The powerful Belarusian had 26 winners on the day, compared to just 19 unforced errors; Barty had 23 of each. Sabalenka also won a terrific 84 percent of points on her stunning first serve.
"On the beginning of this match, I didn't feel my serve," Sabalenka explained. "[Barty] was serving really well. Actually I didn't know what to do on the court. When there was nothing to lose, when she was leading 5-3, then I start to play well. It was nothing to lose."
Sabalenka attributes her improvement to her increased experience. "When I was down with one break, before I'd get crazy and I'd lose, like, three games straight after that, after I lose my serve. Now I understand that I can play. I can still win return games, can make breaks back. It makes me in the game. I'm trying to find the way how to come back. Probably, yeah, I have more experience at the moment."
Sabalenka will face Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in Saturday's final. World No.27 Kontaveit moved into her first final of 2018 and the biggest final of her career after home nation heroine Wang Qiang was forced to retire from their semifinal due to a left thigh injury while trailing 6-2, 2-1.
"Tomorrow it's a another chance to take one more title," said Sabalenka, who won the Connecticut Open in New Haven this summer for her first career WTA singles title. "I hope I will come on the court without any nerves. I will just try to show my best and enjoy it."
The final will be the first meeting between Sabalenka and Kontaveit. "[Kontaveit is] kind of aggressive player. Today she had a lot of winners down the line. It looks really unbelievable, really powerful. She has a good serve. Well, she's a great player. She's in the final. Of course, she's great. It will be another tough match."
It was Barty who opened the match with great determination, persistently moving forward to finish points at net, where she was perfect well into the set. Sabalenka did not hit a winner until 2-2, and that forehand winner was the only point she won in that game as Barty claimed the initial break to lead 3-2.
Barty moved to 5-3 with no troubles on serve, but after Sabalenka cracked a forehand winner to hold for 5-4, Barty faced danger when serving for the set. Barty found herself down triple break point, and though she rebounded to deuce, she double faulted to give Sabalenka a fourth break point. A strong Sabalenka backhand forced an error to convert that chance and level the set at 5-5.
In the tiebreak, the first four points went against serve, but then Sabalenka went on a tear for the remainder. At 4-2, Barty’s serve-and-volley tactic went awry, whacking the volley into the net to fall behind 5-2. Sabalenka blasted a big serve which Barty returned long for quadruple set point, and an ace led the Belarusian to the first set, having won the final five points.
The close first-set loss hung with Barty a bit too long, as the Australian dropped her serve in the first game of the second set after she shot a forehand wide. Two double faults in Barty's next service game put her a point away from falling behind a double break, but Barty held on to prevent Sabalenka from running away with the match.
Unfortunately for Barty, Sabalenka only required that solitary break to hold onto control of the encounter. Serving at 2-1, the Belarusian erased a break point, then blasted two aces to garner a tough hold. Then at 3-2, Sabalenka again survived break point, this time with an ace, and then ran out the hold with another ace, followed by a huge serve that forced a netted return from Barty.
As the match reached its conclusion, Sabalenka’s serve became even more untouchable, as the Belarusian held at love for 5-3 with a brutal succession of astounding deliveries. Barty did all she could to extend the match, holding serve once more, but at 5-4, a Sabalenka backhand winner gave her a first match point, which was converted after Barty slapped a final backhand into the net.