Can Maria Sakkari find a way to stop the in-form Elena Rybakina from reaching her third and biggest final of 2020 so far at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy?
Sakkari vs Rybakina is live from St Petersburg on Saturday 15 February at 2pm local/11am GMT
Rybakina is hoping to become the first Russian woman to reach the final in St Petersburg since the tournament began its current incarnation as a WTA Premier event in 2016.
One of two Russians having an absolutely scorching start to 2020 (the other being Ekaterina Alexandrova, also in the St Petersburg semifinals), Rybakina is poised to break into the top 20 after her stellar run of form.
The 20-year-old had her initial WTA Tour-level breakthrough at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy in 2018 when she received a wildcard into qualifying, successfully won through into the main draw and then beat Timea Bacsinszky and a top-10 player (Caroline Garcia) to reach the quarterfinals. Ranked world no. 450 at the time, Rybakina broke into the top 100 in July 2019 after winning her maiden WTA Tour title in Bucharest and capped off her season by runs to the Nanchang final, Wuhan quarterfinals and Luxembourg semifinals which put her inside the top 50.
Rybakina’s purple patch has only intensified in 2020, with the Russian compiling a brilliant 14-2 win-loss record. She made back-to-back finals in the first two weeks of the season, finishing runner-up to Alexandrova in Shenzhen and winning her second title in Hobart, defeating Zhang Shuai in the final; she made the third round of the Australian Open before losing to world no. 1 Ashleigh Barty.
In St Petersburg, Rybakina breezed through the first two rounds in straight sets, beating Katerina Siniakova and lucky loser Fiona Ferro by identical 6-3, 6-4 scorelines, to reach her second quarterfinal. But in the quarterfinals against Oceane Dodin, things became a bit more complicated. Rybakina trailed by a set despite having led 5-2 and held four set points in the first, and found herself facing two match points as she served to stay in it at 4-5 in the second set, despite having led 40-0 in the game.
Saving both match points sparked Rybakina into life, however, and she went on to reel off seven straight games to level the match and take a 4-0 lead in the decider, eventually wrapping up a 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-2 victory in two hours and 27 minutes.
‘I lost the first set when I was up, so it was not easy. I was focusing on every point, and I served well. I saved the match points in my service games, and after the second set, I was feeling more confident.
‘I played a really good third set and physically I was also fine. In important moments, I had some problems, but still I managed to win.’
Maria Sakkari also had a dramatic time of it in the quarterfinals as she ousted top seed and world no. 5 Belinda Bencic for her first top-10 win of 2020.
Sakkari came back from a set and a break down to beat Bencic 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 and reach her first semifinal of the season.
The Greek player is now sure to break into the top 20 for the first time next week after her run to the final four in St Petersburg, following on from reaching the last 16 at the Australian Open with a win over tenth seed Madison Keys.
Sakkari had a career-best season in 2019 as she won her first WTA Tour title in Rabat (also with a comeback three-set victory, this time over Johanna Konta) and reached the semifinals of the Premier-5 Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, as well as the Premier-level Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. The Greek player has always been very good on clay but she is improving on hard courts rapidly, adding more aggression to her athleticism and dogged competitiveness; against Bencic, it was notable how willing and indeed eager she was to take the game to the higher-ranked player.
It will be a very different match-up against Rybakina, who is much more of a first-strike power player than Bencic. Sakkari will need a much improved serving performance than the one she put in against Bencic, and will have to be a great deal more clinical when she gets opportunities to finish the point at the net. Rybakina is supremely confident at the moment and has the bigger weapons, but she hasn’t necessarily been playing her best tennis this week; Sakkari could be the one to make her pay for it.