WUHAN, China - The irresistible rise of Aryna Sabalenka continued as she collected her second title in as many months, and biggest to date, at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open with a 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Anett Kontaveit in the tournament's second straight all-unseeded final.
"It was a great tennis today - was a great level!" she enthused afterwards. Part of the reason for this level, she said, was her love of playing in China - where she reached her maiden final last year in Tianjin. "This is one of my favorite places to play. I really enjoy to be here. Always play well here. [I'm] always waiting for this part of the season. I always want to be here... Probably they have to have more tournaments in China!"
The Belarusian had become the youngest player to hold a Premier title in August when she won her maiden crown in New Haven, and for her second title run she went one level higher to capture a debut Premier 5 trophy. Having lost her first three career finals, Sabalenka has now won two in a row without dropping a set - part of a spectacular run of form since June that has now seen her win 25 of her past 32 matches.
"It's a lot of things," she offered afterwards as an explanation for her rapid improvement this summer. "I just start to be more calm on the court, don't try to go aggressive with every shot, try to find a way. If I cannot put the ball in, I try to find a way... how to put it in finally.
The timing of Sabalenka's surge dates from her hiring of Dmitry Tursunov as her coach during the grass season, and the former ATP Top 20 player has been candid this week about the changes he has helped his charge effect - and about her huge future potential. Sabalenka feels much the same way about their partnership: "Well, I start thinking more on the court," she said. "Before, I was just, like, hit the ball as hard as I can, it's enough. From this summer when I start working with Dmitry, I start to think on the court. I think this is his job. Like 50% is his job, for sure."
In the biggest championship match of either players' careers, blazing winners were interspersed with wild errors as both big hitters sought to impose their power on the other. Sabalenka coughed up six unforced errors in the first two games alone - but the 20-year-old would soon settle, and once she did her power was relentless.
A series of scorching forehand winners provided the kind of brutal power fans have come to expect of Sabalenka - in total, she would hammer 25 past her opponent - but the World No.20 also showed off some surprising delicacy. After a Kontaveit double fault offered up the first break point chance of the match, Sabalenka would take it by deploying first a high, loopy backhand to draw the short ball - and then a perfect dropshot to finish the point.
Crucially, too, the Lugano and Eastbourne runner-up was also the superior server today. Sabalenka would not face a break point in the entire match, maintaining a first serve percentage of 63% and winning 78% of the points whenever she landed her first delivery. By contrast, Kontaveit's first serve percentage was a meagre 45% - allowing her remorseless opponent to tee off on too many second serve returns.
Sabalenka would also prove resilient in shaking off minor setbacks. Some of her worse errors - a sitter volley tapped into the net, a backhand metres over the baseline - would come in tight return games that she would eventually lose. But instead of becoming turning points, the youngest player in the Top 50 simply turned around and delivered an emphatic service hold in response.
Kontaveit would occasionally find success by dragging her rival out wide with heavy forehands, often eliciting a down-the-line error from an overpressing Sabalenka, but otherwise the Estonian was unable to find an answer to her opponent's sheer pace. Oddly unwilling to pull the trigger down the line with her backhand - a shot that has been such a key element of her arsenal this week - the World No.27 would only manage to strike 10 winners while racking up 15 unforced errors.
As the second set drew on, Sabalenka continued to make incursions into the Kontaveit serve, as well as beginning to showcase some judicious net forays to maintain her advantage. From 2-3 down, the New Haven champion began to peak in every aspect of the game: down-the-line winners off both wings, another well-executed dropshot, a massive backhand return to break in the seventh game. Reeling off 16 of the match's last 20 points, Sabalenka sealed the title in the most appropriate manner: a thunderous forehand winner, bang on the line.
The title will raise both players to a new career high ranking on Monday: Kontaveit will rise to the edge of the Top 20 at No.21, while Sabalenka will leap up to No.16.