Playing in her second WTA Tour final in as many weeks, Elena Rybakina takes on the experienced Zhang Shuai, who has never lost a WTA final, for the title at the Hobart International.
Elena Rybakina vs Zhang Shuai is live from Hobart on Saturday 18 January at 1pm local/2am GMT
According to the WTA, Rybakina is the first player to reach back-to-back WTA finals in the first fortnight of the season since Agnieszka Radwanska did so in Auckland and Sydney in 2013.
Radwanska won both, however, and Rybakina was denied the title at the Shenzhen Open last week by Ekaterina Alexandrova – can she go one better in Hobart?
The 20-year-old Kazakh climbed 146 places in the rankings in 2019, starting the year as the world no. 182 and ending it ranked world no. 36 after winning her first WTA Tour final in Bucharest ranked world no. 106 and going on to make the final of Nanchang as well as reaching semifinals in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Luxembourg.
Rybakina will be seeded at the Australian Open – and could be a potential pitfall for top seed Ashleigh Barty, whom she is seeded to meet in the first round – which is an extremely impressive achievement given that she played qualifying at all four of the majors in 2019, and in fact lost in the first round of qualifying for the Australian Open (she would play herself into the main draw at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open).
Starting her season in style in Shenzhen last week, Rybakina beat San Jose champion Zheng Saisai, Acapulco champion Wang Yafan, third seed Elise Mertens – her third win over a top-20 player – and big-serving Kristyna Pliskova to reach the final, only to be denied by Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova, who has also been climbing the rankings impressively over the past 12 months.
Undaunted, Rybakina tore through Tamara Zidansek and Alize Cornet in Hobart to reach the quarterfinals, but has really had to battle since then, playing for two hours and 37 minutes to beat Australian wildcard Lizette Cabrera 6-7(4), 7-6(2), 7-5. Things did not get easier in the semifinals as Rybakina faced Heather Watson. The British player is currently ranked world no. 101 and was a qualifier in Hobart, but she has an excellent record in Hobart, winning the title in 2015 and reaching the semifinals in 2018, and had knocked out top seed Mertens in a marathon quarterfinal of her own, which lasted three hours and 33 minutes.
The fact that both women had played such long quarterfinals did not stop them from engaging in a lengthy tussle, with Rybakina winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and 16 minutes. The Kazakh served ten aces, but it was her ability to dig in and win more points behind her second serve than her opponent – 55% to Watson’s 43% – which ultimately made the difference as Rybakina’s explosiveness prevailed over Watson’s defense.
Rybakina did need treatment on her upper right leg in the closing stages of the match and the lengthy matches she has played may well be a factor coming into the final.
She’s also up a very good opponent in Zhang Shuai. Ten years Rybakina’s senior, Zhang was on the brink of retiring from the sport at the beginning of 2016 when, ranked world no. 133, she made a brilliant and unexpected run at the Australian Open, qualifying for the main draw and beating Simona Halep and Madison Keys on her way to the final.
Zhang reached a career-high ranking of world no. 23 by the end of 2016 and, needless to say, did not retire, holding steady in the top 50 in 2017 as she won her second career WTA title in Guangzhou and reaching three WTA Tour semifinals during a solid 2018. The 2019 season was another impressive one for Zhang, as she made her second Grand Slam quarterfinal, beating Caroline Garcia, Caroline Wozniacki and Dayana Yastremska at Wimbledon before her run was ended by Halep; Zhang also made the third rounds of the Australian and US Opens, reached the final of the WTA 125k in Anning and won the ITF $100k in Tokyo.
Currently ranked world no. 40, Zhang fell to Kateryna Bondarenko in the second round in Shenzhen last week, but has looked stronger and stronger in Hobart: She took three sets to beat Belgian veteran Kirsten Flipkens and qualifier Kateryna Kozlova, but was very impressive in victories over Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-4 and Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-4 to reach her third career final.
‘I think all matches I played really well this week, and also a lot of the Chinese fans are coming to cheer for me, so I’ve had a lot of motivation to win!
‘The winter training went really good for me. Training with the national team, a lot of coaches helped me, so I was already ready before this tournament.’
Zhang will open her Australian Open campaign against Sloane Stephens, and nobody would be too surprised to see an upset there, but first there is the matter of this Hobart International final – and it must be said, Zhang is looking very strong for a third career WTA title. The Chinese player can’t match Rybakina’s explosiveness and weight of shot, but when Zhang is playing well, she is fantastic at absorbing and redirecting pace, taking time away from her opponents. A streaky player, Zhang is hard to stop once she gets on a roll, and she has never lost a WTA Tour final; she should also be physically a lot fresher than her younger opponent, who has played such long matches in the previous rounds.