The rapidly rising Elena Rybakina, into her third WTA Tour final in 12 months, faces Ekaterina Alexandrova for the title at the Shenzhen Open.
Ekaterina Alexandrova vs Elena Rybakina is live from Shenzhen on Saturday 11 January at 1pm local/5am GMT
Rybakina, who is just 20 years old, was ranked world no. 182 this time last year when she made the final of the ITF $25k tournament in Playford, going on to lose in the first round of qualifying for the Australian Open.
Twelve months on and things look very different for the Russian, who made four ITF finals in the first three months of 2019 before reaching her first WTA Tour semifinal in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in June as a qualifier. A few weeks later, Rybakina would break into the top 100 in spectacular style after winning her first WTA Tour final in Bucharest, defeating Viktoria Kuzmova and Patricia Maria Tig on the way; she went on to reach the final of another WTA International event in Nanchang, broke into the top 50 after a quarterfinal run at the Premier-5 Wuhan Open, beating Simona Halep on the way, and ended the season with a semifinal run in Luxembourg, losing to Julia Goerges.
It was a really strong end to a breakthrough season for Rybakina, who is now ranked a career high world no. 36, not far off being seeded for the Australian Open – and if her first week of 2020 is any indication, she intends to keep up the pace this year.
Opening against an opponent ranked four places below her, San Jose champion Zheng Saisai, Rybakina was pushed to three sets but went on to defeat Acapulco winner Wang Yafan 6-3, 6-4. Up against former Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals, Rybakina dropped a tight second set but finished strong for a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory – just the third of her career over a player ranked inside the top 20 – before ousting big-serving left-hander Kristyna Pliskova, who had knocked out second seed and defending champion Aryna Sabalenka, 6-2, 7-5 to reach her third WTA Tour final in the space of six months.
‘I played well in China last year. It was two or three tournaments that I played really well. It’s amazing to be in the final, and I’m looking forward for tomorrow’s match.
‘Today, I served really well – much better than the last days. I was focusing on the return also, because I know that she’s a player who plays aggressive and fast, so I was ready for the first few balls. That was important, and that’s what I did.’
Ekaterina Alexandrova is ranked just two places above Elena Rybakina at world no. 34, and is looking for her maiden WTA Tour title in Shenzhen after having reached her first career final in Linz at the end of 2018.
That was the run that propelled Alexandrova, now 25, into the top 100 for the first time, and the hard-hitting Russian climbed steadily throughout 2019. She did not reach a WTA Tour final (although she did win the WTA 125k title in Limoges at the end of the season) but she made semifinals in Seoul, Linz and Budapest and reached four quarterfinals besides.
Despite a seven-match losing streak in the spring, it was a very solid season for Alexandrova which included some quality victories over the likes of Halep in Beijing, Belinda Bencic in Eastbourne, Johanna Konta in Sydney and Caroline Wozniacki at Indian Wells.
Defeated in the second round of Shenzhen last year by eventual champion Sabalenka, Alexandrova has dropped just one set this year on her way to the final, opening with wins over Katerina Siniakova and Peng Shuai before coming back from a set down against Wang Qiang. In the semifinals, Alexandrova came out on top of a big-hitting duel with sixth seed and two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, keeping cool and managing her power game better than the Spaniard for a 6-4, 6-3 win.
‘It was a tough match right from the start. I was calmer than yesterday and that helped a lot. She’s a really experienced player. I’m happy I did my best and I hope I can do it tomorrow.’
The Russian added:
‘I’m feeling great. I’m very excited about the final tomorrow. She’s a great player on the rise, who’s playing so well, so it’s going to be a tough one.’
The two Russians have actually never played before, but it will be an interesting match between two players who have been producing some of their best tennis over the past 12 months. Rybakina has the advantage of having won a WTA Tour title before, and her aggressive returning should be an effective tactic against Alexandrova; it could be what gives the younger woman the edge in Saturday’s Shenzhen final.