World no. 8 Kiki Bertens is out to secure back-to-back WTA St Petersburg titles on Sunday, but the rise of Elena Rybakina is looking unstoppable.
Bertens vs Rybakina is live from St Petersburg on Sunday 16 February at 4.30pm local/1.30pm GMT
Since the St Petersburg Ladies’ Trophy’s inception as a Premier-level WTA Tour event in 2015, there have been no repeat champions, so Bertens is aiming to become the first.
Twelve months ago, the Dutch player defeated Donna Vekic in the final and will now face another rising young player, Elena Rybakina, for the 2020 title.
Bertens is now 10-2 in 2020 and has made a solid start to the season, reaching the quarterfinals in Brisbane with quality wins over Dayana Yastremska and Anett Kontaveit. She was a victim of Garbine Muguruza’s excellent run at the Australian Open, going out to the Spaniard in the fourth round, but delivered two good singles wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich during the Netherlands’ Fed Cup qualifying tie against Belarus, although she and Demi Schuurs were unable to beat Sabalenka and Sasnovich in the deciding doubles.
After such an emotional weekend, some doubted whether Bertens would be up to defending her title, but she has certainly made an extremely good attempt at it, with solid victories over a trio of Russian opponents. The world no. 8 beat Veronika Kudermetova and Anastasia Potapova in straight sets, but was made to work much harder by the very in-form Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semifinals on Saturday.
Alexandrova has been remorselessly climbing up the rankings over the past year or so and started 2020 by winning the Shenzhen Open (beating Rybakina in the final, no less) so she was no easy opponent for Bertens. Still the Dutch player looked on her way to a routine victory when she led 6-1, 2-0, only for a couple of sloppy games to let Alexandrova back in. The Russian retrieved the break, started to play much better and Bertens got a little tight. Fortunately for her, she was able to break early in the decider and ran away with it as Alexandrova faded for a 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 victory.
‘I think I started the match well at 6-1, 2-0. There were no complaints, I would say. I played a bad game on my serve, two not-so-good games, and I think she started believing.
‘In the third set, I was just trying to focus and stay in the match from the beginning. Her serve wasn’t working so well in the third, so I was a little bit lucky with that.’
If Alexandrova is on a great run of form and had every reason to feel confident, then that is even more emphatically the case for Elena Rybakina.
The Russian-born Kazakh is into what is already her third WTA Tour final of the season in St Petersburg after finishing runner-up to Alexandrova at the Shenzhen Open and beating Zhang Shuai to win Hobart, her second WTA Tour title after winning Bucharest last summer.
Reaching five WTA Tour finals, winning two, by the age of 20 is impressive, and the Premier-level St Petersburg Ladies Trophy is the biggest yet, but it doesn’t feel remotely like a surprise, so good has Rybakina been of late.
Rybakina had her breakthrough run at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy two years ago in 2018 when she got her first win over a top-10 opponent. This year, she came in seeded eighth and started out with straight-sets wins over Katerina Siniakova and Fiona Ferro before having to save two match points against Oceane Dodin in the quarterfinals.
The semifinal against Maria Sakkari, who had beaten top seed Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals, didn’t quite get as far as Rybakina needing to save match points – but it was close. Rybakina lost the first set 3-6 and had to hold serve to stay in the match at 4-5, but found some of her best tennis with her back to the wall; she started really going for her shots, and it paid off, as she won three games in a row to level up. The two exchanged breaks in the decider but Sakkari was playing more than a little passively and looked nervous; once Rybakina got her nose in front for the second time, she never looked back on her way to the finish line, ending with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory that spoke volumes about her confidence level.
Nevertheless, this is the second match in a row that Rybakina has struggled to find her best tennis until being on the brink of defeat – and against Kiki Bertens, she should be up against a player who can punish her for that.
This will be the second meeting between Bertens and Rybakina, with the Dutch player winning 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals of ‘s-Hertogenbosch last summer. Bertens has a solid enough 9-5 record in WTA Tour finals, although she did lose a couple somewhat surprisingly in 2019. Rybakina is an absolutely excellent player with sky-high potential, but Bertens has the weapons and the experience to fend her off in this final and claim back-to-back WTA St Petersburg titles.