Spirited Battle Comes Up Just Short For Yastremska In Lyon

Dayana Yastremska and Zhang Shuai (photo: WTA Tour video)

LYON/WASHINGTON, March 7, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

It wasn’t the fairy tale ending that Dayana Yastremska – and a war-torn nation – had hoped for. Yet, Sunday’s title match between the 21-year-old Ukrainian refugee and eighth-seeded Zhang Shuai of China at the WTA 250 Open 6ème Sen – Métropole de Lyon in France was a final that was full of feelings for both players, each who showed remarkable fight and spirit.

Neither player got too down on themselves during the one-hour and 46-minute final inside the Palais des Sports de Garland, won by Zhang 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. By the end of their third career meeting, it was the 33-year-old from Tianjin, China, who weathered the storm best. Both players shared a polite handshake at the net and Zhang patted Yastremska on the back as they walked off the court together.

Afterward, during the trophy presentation, Yastremska accepted the runner-up trophy with her battered-but-proud country’s blue and yellow flag draped around her shoulders. She used her platform to send a message of hope to her fellow country persons.

“It’s been a really tough week for me,” said Yastremska, who shared congratulations with Zhang, her eyes welled with tears. “It was a great match. …

“All this week, I’ve been here not just [playing] for myself but also my country. I’m very happy to have reached the finals because it’s been a long time. Today, I didn’t have enough emotion. I was pretty tired, but the crowd here since I arrived has been amazing; everyone has been supporting me. [To the tournament director] thank youfor the wild card, thank you for the opportunity. …

“The prize money I earn here I’m going to give to the Ukrainian foundation to support Ukraine,” Yastremska added. “If the Ukrainian people are watching me, I’m going to say that you guys are so strong. You have an amazing spirit. I try to fight for Ukraine. I want to say thanksto every single person from Ukraine for standing by [our country] and showing everyone we have a really strong spirit.”

Both the 140th-ranked Yastremska and No. 64 Zhang were competing in their fifth career WTA singles final and first indoors. It’s been a longtime coming for both. Yastremska hasn’t been in a title match since Adelaide in 2020 and the last time for Zhang was last year at Nottingham.

Yastremska was looking to win her fourth career trophy and first since Strasbourg in 2019, while Zhang was trying to win her third title and first since Guangzhou in 2017. After their Lyon battle, Yastremska will have to wait a little bit longer, while Zhang has broken through after a long dry spell.

“An incredible week, very high-quality match in the final,” Zhang said. “I saw [Dayana] grow up over the last three or four years, she’s already won many tournaments. She plays so well, very powerful, so I was really focused on myself today. I’m really proud of winning.”

On serve at 3-2 in the first set, Yastremska broke Zhang from 15-40 after the Chinese hit a fifth-shot forehand return long. She promptly consolidated the break for a 5-2 advantage. Then, a game later, Yastremska set up set point with a forehand winner and closed out the 30-minute opening set 6-3 after Zhang hit a second-shot forehand long.

Then, after breaking Zhang in the opening game of the second set, Yastremska was tested early in the next game and surrendered it on her second break point. She was broken again in her next service game, which gave Zhang a 3-1 advantage that the Chinese veteran would not squander. Zhang put away the 32-minute set 6-3 with a backhand winner that capped a five-shot rally as the match extended beyond the one-hour mark.

Next, in the deciding set, Yastremska got an early break to go ahead 2-0, hitting a 10th-shot forehand winner very emphatically. However, Zhang erased the advantage with a break of Yastremska at love after the Ukrainian sailed a forehand long. She consolidated the break to level the set at 2-all. However, Yastremska pulled ahead 3-2 with a pair of aces, her fifth and sixth of the match. Then, she battled from 0-40 to win five straight points and broke Zhang to go ahead 4-2.

Needing to win just two more games, though, Yastremska was broken for the fourth time by Zhang as the pressure mounted. Then, in a contentious game, Zhang consolidated the break for 4-all. Yastremska faced a break point in her next service game at 30-40, the ninth game of the set, after hitting a forehand off a net cord long. She was broken by Zhang, who hit a 10th-shot forehand down the line to go ahead 5-4.

With the title match on the line in the 10th game, Zhang raced to a 40-0 advantage. However, Yastremska saved a championship point as Zhang hit a seventh-shot forehand long. She saved another one after Zhang netted a third-shot forehand return. Then, Zhang won the title after Yastremska hit a second-shot return long.

The final statistics were quite even. Zhang finished with two aces and hit nine winners to 13 unforced errors. She converted five of nine break points and outpointed Yastremska 81-79. Yastremska hit six aces, fired 31 winners but also made 22 unforced errors. She was four for four in break-point conversions.

During her trophy acceptance speech, Zhang not only praised Yastremska but also gave thanks to everyone who made it possible for her to thrive in Lyon this week. “In our country with no more tournaments, if I want to win I have to do it outside of China,” she said. “I want to thank all of the sponsors who make the tournaments possible so that we can continue playing. It’s very important for Chinese players.”

Looking back at Yastremska’s remarkable and intense week

What a remarkable and intense week it wound up being for Yastremska, who fledfled her war-torn country of Ukraine just days after it was invaded by Russia. She and her younger sister, Ivanna, 15, escaped from Odessa by boat to Romania, then flew to Lyon. She spoke all week in press of mixed emotions but expressed her thankfulness for the support of the French crowds in Lyon.

“When I posted pictures on Instagram that I left my home, I got a lot of messages from French people and from all over the world,” she said. “But when I arrived here, I didn’t expect I would get that huge support.”

After winning four matches and playing 10 sets of tennis to reach the championship match, Yastremska said the wear on her has been more mental than physical. At times, during Sunday’s final, the fatigue showed, but she soldiered on.

“I read a lot of news every day,” Yastremska said during one of her Lyon press conferences. “Sometimes, during the night, I get messages from groups with the news; sometimes, I wake up and read what’s going on, especially with my city. So, I wouldn’t say I sleep here really good. I wake up pretty tired in the morning.

“But maybe it’s just my spirit that is pretty strong right now – that’s why I think I can deal with everything. I’m Ukrainian, and Ukrainian people are very strong. You can see that now during the war. Maybe, I’m also strong.

“Every win from now on goes to my country. Compared to what’s going on, it has no big meaning.”

Yastremska receives Indian Wells wild card

Sunday evening, Yastremska learned she had received a wild card into the main draw of the WTA 1000 BNP Paribas Open, which begins midweek in Indian Wells, Calif. Following the withdrawal earlier in the day by Camila Giorgi of Italy, it meant that wild card and 2018 champion Naomi Osaka was moved into the main draw by direct entry. Thus, with a wild card to award to another player, it went to the very deserving Yastremska.

Siegemund and Zvonareva win Lyon doubles title

Tour veterans Laura Siegemund of Germany and Vera Zvonareva of Russia won the doubles crown over Great Britain’s Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nichols, 7-5, 6-1. The title match lasted just 72 minutes.

After Siegemund and Zvonareva paired to win the 2020 US Open doubles title, their first as a team, they won their second crown together and it came in their first event this season.

The 34-year-old Siegemund has now won seven doubles titles and it was the 11th for Zvonareva, 37. It was the first doubles title for each since they won the 2020 US Open together.