Azarenka Reaches Ostrava Final With A Sense Of Purpose

Victoria Azarenka (@JTBankaOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

All week, Victoria Azarenka has played inspiring tennis with a sense of purpose. Her clarity and maturity have been unmistakable, but let’s not forget, she’s also having fun.

Both on and off the court at the WTA Premier J&T Banka Ostrava Open in the northeast Czech Republic, about 15 kilometers from the border with Poland, the 31-year-old Azarenka has been sharing her wisdom and intellect. The joie de vivre of her journey has not gone unnoticed.

On Saturday afternoon, the No. 4 seed Azarenka from Belarus defeated unseeded and 23rd-ranked Maria Sakkari from Greece, 6-1, 6-3 to reach her 40th career WTA final. She will face No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, also from Belarus, who recovered from her rollercoaster-like quarterfinal finish Friday night to beat unseeded No. 26 Jennifer Brady of the United States, 6-4, 6-4.

Although it took one hour and 37 minutes for Azarenka to complete her victory over Sakkari in their first head-to-head clash, for a while, it looked like it might be finished much sooner.

The 14th-ranked Azarenka enjoyed a solid start and won the first five games of the match simply by keeping the ball in play while making Sakkari work hard for every point. Azarenka set the tone for the semifinal through her aggressive play and hustle by saving four break points during a lengthy, 16-point opening game. She put away the 33-minute opening set on an unforced error, Sakkari’s 10th of the match.

As the second set unfolded, Azarenka broke Sakkari’s serve for the third time, consolidated it, and broke again for 4-0. Later, Azarenka held serve to cap a 16-point game for a 5-3 lead with victory looming on the horizon. Soon, Azarenka gained a match point and wasted little time or effort, winning the match on her first opportunity when Sakkari hit a forehand return long that ended a seven-shot rally. It lifted Azarenka into her third final of 2020 – all on hard courts and all since the tour’s relaunch in August – and put closure on Sakkari’s pandemic-interrupted season. She finished 2020 with a 20-11 win-loss record.

“What I’m really happy with is that I play every point like it’s my last point, and I think that makes a difference for my opponent,” said Azarenka, who improved her win-loss record this year to 18-5 heading into Sunday’s final. “I think I’m making it very hard for them to earn anything on the court, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

Azarenka’s service game was solid throughout the semifinal. She placed 82 percent of her first serves in play, won 60 percent (35 of 58) of her first-serve points and backed it up with a 54-percent success rate (7 of 13) on her second serves. Azarenka saved seven of eight break points she faced while breaking Sakkari five times. She outpointed her opponent 76-60.

A former No. 1 and winner of two Australian Open titles, Azarenka has enjoyed a career renaissance since the August relaunch of the tour, having reached the quarterfinals or better in four of her last five tournaments, including winning the Western & Southern Open – her first WTA singles title since 2016 – and reaching her fifth Grand Slam final at this year’s US Open. A year ago, Azarenka was ranked No. 50 and seemed at a professional crossroads. Now, she’s ranked in the Top 20 and enjoying her time on the court in her final tournament of the year. It’s evident in her demeanor, win or lose.

“The whole point is to enjoy your work and process, and I think that’s a very simple thing to say, but when you actually feel that and you live that, that’s the most fun part,” said Azarenka, smiling at a small group of reporters during her Zoom chat. “Really being able to enjoy that moment.”

Sabalenka wins, sets up first all-Belarus final

No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka won a slugfest among big ball strikers over 26th-ranked Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 15 minutes to set up the first all-Belarus WTA final against No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka.

“It’s a big day. I’m happy we’re in the final, two Belarusians. It’s never happened before,” said Sabalenka during her virtual press conference. “It’s something big for us. I’m just really looking forward. I’m ready for the big fight.”

When Sabalenka, currently ranked 12th in the world, was asked what it says about her country and its athletes – which does not have a long history in tennis but currently has two Top 20 players in the WTA – she smiled at the reporter’s question and responded: “I think it’s big for our country. Everybody is excited to see this final. This is the big sensation in Belarus. I really like to represent Belarus. For me it’s something special.”

Sabalenka, who was on the brink of defeat in her quarterfinal after losing the first 10 games against 73rd-ranked Spanish qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo before she mounted a comeback to win 12 consecutive games on Friday, reached her 11th career WTA singles final and kept Brady from reaching her second final of the year.

Sabalenka achieved her first straight-set victory in what has been a busy week for her in Ostrava, playing in both the singles and doubles draws and reaching the finals in both. She hit 22 winners against Brady and converting three-for-three in break-point opportunities. Sabalenka outpointed Brady 60-48.

Ostrava news & notes

Unseeded Gaby Dabrowski of Canada and Luisa Stefani from Brazil received a walkover into Sunday’s doubles final when No. 2 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both of the Czech Republic, were forced to withdraw due to an undisclosed illness suffered by Krejcikova.

Dabrowski and Stefani, who reached the semifinals with a quarterfinal win over No. 3 seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic, will face  No. 1 seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus. Mertens and Sabalenka advanced with a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 4 seeds Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, in one hour and 29 minutes Saturday night.