Battle of old and new No2s sees Sabalenka beat Badosa to final

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The Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, in Stuttgart, is a special tournament for many reasons.

It is the first clay tournament on the WTA tour to be played in Europe. It is the only WTA500 played on red clay, and is the only clay event played entirely indoors.

Then there are the rewards for this long-standing favourite on the tour. Not only did the winner pick up almost €100K, she would drive away with a Porsche worth even more than that.

Little wonder it has been voted by the players as their favourite in the Premier/500 category in 10 of the last 15 years. And 2022 had attracted another quality field. While there was no defending champion, following Ash Barty’s retirement from tennis, the brand new No1, Iga Swiatek, would take the top spot in the draw on her debut at the tournament.

And the Pole was joined by a remarkable line-up that included seven of the top 10 players, with the eighth seed in this 28-woman draw occupied by US Open champion, world No12 Emma Raducanu.

The only woman among the top seven who was missing was the injured French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, and that would prove significant. For in her absence, world No3 Paula Badosa, could take her place at No2 by reaching the semi-finals, and she did just that with two battling three-setters over Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur.

A year ago, Badosa was ranked 62, but in front of a home crowd, she reached her first 1000 semi-final in Madrid. She went on to win her first title in Belgrade, made her first quarter-final run at a Major at Roland Garros, and broke into the top 10 with a storming victory in Indian Wells to qualify for the WTA Finals—where she made the semis.

With good runs on the spring hard-courts, Badosa was threatening to rise to No2 just as Swiatek made her own assault—and beat her to it. The Pole, of course, soon capped that with her rise to the very top following three back-to-back 1000 titles, but Badosa had to wait a little longer to get that second spot as she built a 20-7 run.

Sure enough, after her quarter-final on Charleston’s clay, and then the same in Stuttgart, she was there. However, now she had to play the woman who was No2 at the start of the year, Aryna Sabalenka.

After an impressive surge through 2021, during which she made the final in Stuttgart, won the Madrid 1000 and the semis of both Wimbledon and the US Open, Sabalenka’s start to 2022 had lost consistency and confidence, marked by several opening losses. But back in Stuttgart, she looked more like her 2021 self, and like Badosa, had battled through two three-setters to reach her third meeting with the Spaniard. And while Badosa won both, their Cincinnati meeting in August needed a third-set tie-break to decide it.

As expected, the two tall, powerful players, renowned for their big-time, full-blooded tennis, began with attacking, aggressive shots right from the start. First, Sabalenka forced Badosa to a long opening deuce game, and then faced not just deuces but early break points in return. The Belarusian threw in a couple of deft drop shots to break things up and held: 12 minutes, just 1-1.

Badosa upped the pace in the third game, a quick hold this time, and Sabalenka matched here, but come the sixth game, the Belarusian made a couple of errors, going for broke and missing, and it opened the way for Badosa to break: The Spaniard consolidated, 5-2.

However, Sabalenka was all over the Spaniard’s serve as Badosa attempted to seal the set, powering the ball from forehand to backhand, and it won the break back. They went to a tie-break with 38 and 39 points apiece.

Badosa quickly stole a march in points, going 3-0 with a blistering forehand winner, but Sabalenka took it to another level with a couple of stunning winners, as each tested the other to the extremes of the court with dazzling pace and penetration. Sure enough, the Belarusian edged it 7-6(5), after one hour of outstanding tennis.

Badosa hit straight back to break in the first game of the second set, but Sabalenka did not let up, mixing direction, angle, and taking time away on return. And a cross-court backhand winner got the break back. The Spaniard did have a chance to break yet again, but this time, the Belarusian held on, and did so again in the ninth game, to hold for 5-4.

She was not giving not an inch, taking the ball on the rise and making winners—33 of them by the end—off both wings. It was intimidating tennis, and Badosa could not stem the tide, finally double faulting twice to concede serve, game and match, 6-4.

The other semi was contested between world No31 Liudmila Samsonova, who put out Karolina Pliskova in the second round. But she now took on that new No1.

If Swiatek had looked mature beyond her years when she won her very first title at the French Open 18 months ago, she had gone on to become a truly worthy No1 at just turned 20. Her 2022 had built a 28-3 record, including her three-WTA1000 run in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami.

Not that she took a break: there she was, winning her two rubbers in Fed Cup last week, immediately before Stuttgart. And now, with her quarter-final win over Raducanu, she was up to a 21-match streak, and 28-consecutive sets. Among those sets was just one tie-break during Indian Wells.

She was, it is safe to say, the hot favourite in this semi-final, but perhaps physical and mental fatigue would begin to play their part. She broke the 23-year-old Samsonova in the second game, holding for 3-0, but had to fend off a break point to hold for 4-1.

The Russian threatened again at the next opportunity, and this time did get the break, 4-3. Her only title had come on grass, and most of her match-wins subsequently had favoured hard courts, but the fast, indoor clay of Stuttgart seemed to suit her game, and her serve and forehand were making inroads against Swiatek. The Pole had three chances to break back again, but to no avail, and Samsonova held for 4-4. And with the Russian serving with such pace and accuracy, Swiatek could not break through: It would be a tie-break, her first in over a month.

Again, the Russian looked the more aggressive and energised, took a 3-0 lead, changed ends at 4-2, and served it out, 7-6(4).

Swiatek could not capitalise on four break points in the third game of the second set, a marathon effort of six deuces, so a lead of 2-1 for the Russian. But finally, the Pole broke to serve out the match, 6-4, to the delight of the German fans.

The decider started with an exchange of breaks, before Swiatek broke and held, 3-1. But she was reeled in again, as Samsonova levelled, 4-4, and continued to strike great forehands to fine angles that wrong-footed the Pole. The Russian resisted four deuces to hold and force Swiatek to serve to save the match: She did—and then broke.

She served out yet another win, her 22nd in a row, to reach yet another final. But she will have her work cut out: After more than three hours on court, she will be back in under 18 hours to play the formidable Sabalenka—who, she made clear, had her eye on that red Porsche.

Source: Sport Review


Author: Ellen Garcia