Top seed, Belinda Bencic attempts to reach the St. Petersburg semi-finals for the second time in her career when she faces Maria Sakkari on Friday.
Belinda Bencic vs Maria Sakkari is live from St. Petersburg from 2:30pm local time/ 11:30am GMT
Bencic reached the St. Petersburg final as a teenager back in 2016, rising into the top ten for the first time as a result, but her rapid rise was curtailed by a series of injuries in the next couple of seasons, and she found herself outside the top-300 in September 2017.
However, she has painstakingly fought her way back up the rankings, and has reestablished herself as a top-ten player, and a major force in the women’s game. With the benefit of good health in 2019, Bencic rose from 54th to a year-end mark of 8th, after winning titles in Dubai and Moscow, making the final in Mallorca, and reaching a maiden Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open. She also made marquee semi-finals at Indian Wells, Madrid and the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, where she unfortunately retired in the final set against Elina Svitolina.
While she is yet to really explode into her best form in 2020, Bencic has made a steady start to the year. She was beaten by Anna Blinkova in her first match of the season in Shenzhen, but she followed that with a quarter final in Adelaide, a third round at the Australian Open, and now another quarter final in St. Petersburg. She had a bye into the second round, where she scored a hard-fought 7-6 6-4 victory over St. Petersburg native, Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Kuznetsova served for a roller-coaster first set at 6-5, but Bencic broke back, before dominating the tie break to take the opener. The world No. 5 grabbed the only break in the seventh game of the second set, and went on to complete her third victory in four matches against Kuznetsova after an hour and 44 minutes.
“I definitely had to be the aggressor, play a little bit harder shots, because obviously [Kuznetsova] tries to break your rhythm with the spins and the slices and everything,” Bencic said, after her victory. “I was prepared for that.”
“Obviously I still tried to make some angled shots,” Bencic added, “but I think against Svetlana, to be successful, you really need to power her, let her move, and then eventually try to hit your winner.”
The 22-year-old goes on to face Greece’s Sakkari in the quarter finals in Friday.
Sakkari is into her first quarter final of the season, following victories over Vitalia Diatchenko and Alize Cornet. She snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in her tournament opener against qualifier, Diatchenko, fighting back from the brink to pull off a stunning 3-6 6-4 7-6 victory.
With Diatchenko serving at 6-3 3-0, Sakkari’s St. Petersburg hopes looked dead and buried, but the Greek resurrected her hopes, winning six of the next seven games to force a decider. She soon found herself in further trouble, down 5-2 and a double break in the final set, but she launched another great escape, breaking back as Diatchenko served for the match at 5-2 and 5-4, saving a match point along the way. The No. 6 seed went on to control the ensuing tie break, claiming a miraculous win after two hours and 40 minutes. That was also her first ever win in St. Petersburg, as she had failed to cross the first round in her previous two visits, losing to Julia Goerges in 2018 and 2019.
The world No. 6 had a less dramatic second round win, taking out Alize Cornet 6-2 6-4 to move into the last eight. She wasn’t without her troubles against Cornet, saving eight of ten break points, majority of them in the second set, and converting five of the seven opportunities that came her way.
It has hardly been the most convincing run from Sakkari, but she will take it, as she looks to kick on this season. A slow start featured a first round loss in Brisbane and a second round exit in Adelaide, but she played well to get to the fourth round of the Australian Open (lost to Petra Kvitova), and has now backed it up by reaching the quarter finals in St. Petersburg.
The 24-year-old is seeking her second WTA title this week, having got off the mark in that regard in Rabat last year. She also made semi-finals in Rome and San Jose and quarter finals in Cincinnati, Charleston and Nottingham as she rose to a year-end ranking of 23rd in 2019. Sakkari is currently operating at a career-high 21st, is in with a great shot a breaking into the top-20 by the end of the week.
She will have her hands full when she runs into the tournament top seed, Belinda Bencic for the first time in Friday’s quarter final.
An aggressive player with great movement, Sakkari is more than capable of taking down Bencic- she has two top-five wins to her name- but she has not quite been at her best this week, and will likely run out of lives against the top seed on Friday.