HONG KONG - Teenage sensation Dayana Yastremska put on an irresistible display of power to reach her maiden WTA final at the Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open, coming from a break down in both sets to dispatch Zhang Shuai 7-5, 6-4 in a blaze of brilliant winners.
The 18-year-old's only previous WTA quarterfinal had been at Istanbul last year, and coming into this week her win-loss record in WTA main draws this season was just 1-6. However, strong ITF performances - $100,000 finals in Cagnes-sur-Mer and Ilkley and a $60,000 title in Rome - had seen her become the first player born in this millennium to crack the Top 100 in July. Moreover, Yastremska has been proving herself more than capable of mixing it with the Tour's best: today's win improves her career record against Top 50 opposition to an extremely impressive 5-1.
The Ukrainian, who would strike 41 winners to 30 unforced errors today, stamped her intent on the match with the first break to lead 2-1. But she was unable to sustain that momentum: Yastremska's feast-or-famine style would oscillate wildly at times, and as Zhang steadily probed away with placement and depth, the teenager fell away to concede four games on the trot, with four double faults proving particularly costly.
The World No.102 has impressed all week with the fearlessness of her shotmaking, though, and a theme of today's match would be her ability to come up with some of her most breathtaking tennis to erase Zhang's leads in games and sets. Often, this would entail Yastremska bypassing rallies to simply blitz clean return winners off both first and second serves. As the Chinese No.2 served for the first set, two such glory shots, one off each wing, were the start of an irresistible comeback.
"I didn't expect that the crowd would support me today," revealed Yastremska. But the fans' enthusiastic response to those shots buoyed her: "I tried to keep that minute, and it gave me energy."
Now dominating off the ground with her immense forehand and confidently finishing points at net, Yastremska would reel off five games of her own to snatch the set, levelling at 5-5 with her second ace and breaking with another brace of clean return winners.
The second set saw the pendulum swing again, with Zhang giving the youngster a taste of her own medicine as she struck a forehand return winner to break en route to a 3-0 lead. This, said Yastremska, was the point in the match at which she felt most nervous.
"I knew that I'd already found my game," she said. "I came back from 5-2, I won the first set, and I knew that I had to be focused from the first ball - but when I started losing one game, two games, three games, then I got really nervous. Then I don't know what happened, really. I just tried to keep myself calm because I had a lot of emotions."
What that meant was that Yastremska didn't so much chip away at the lead as vaporize it in the blink of an eye. A careless double fault and netted forehand from the World No.40 would hand the break back, but the key game came midway through the set at 3-3.
With Zhang seemingly on the brink of a straightforward service hold at 40-0, Yastremska stepped up and hammered five consecutive immense returns, three of which landed for clean winners, to steal the break out of nowhere. The 2015 Wimbledon junior finalist would back that up by coming up with a brilliant stop volley and a spectacular backhand down the line at full stretch to hold for 5-3 and put herself on the verge of a massive milestone.
A valiant Zhang would hold Yastremska off for one more game, coming through three deuces to force her to serve the match out - but the former junior World No.6 was able to pass that test of nerve, sealing the match appropriately with her 40th and 41st winners of the day after one hour and 34 minutes.
Yastremska becomes the sixth teenage finalist this year, and the fourth player born this millennium to reach a WTA title round alongside Olga Danilovic, Anastasia Potapova and Amanda Anisimova. She will get a chance to join Danilovic as a champion against either No.4 seed Garbiñe Muguruza or No.6 seed Wang Qiang tomorrow.
"It's nice to be in the final, but it's sad because it's the last match here tomorrow," she joked. "I want to repeat it all from the first match!"
Yastremska, who admitted that she had been struggling to find her rhythm prior to this tournament, also discussed her improvements over the course of the week. "After the first match I felt something change here in practice - just a feeling," she said. "I picked it up and put it in my pocket! I found that moment when I felt that everything is going well and I could control my game, and match by match I got more confident."