Get ready for a Sunday blockbuster in Tennis Paradise.
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka overcame a technical delay and uneven day at the service line to reach her third final of the season on Friday at the BNP Paribas Open. The world No. 2 eliminated 2022 Indian Wells runner-up Maria Sakkari, 6-2, 6-3, in improving to a dazzling 17-1 on the season.
“I wasn’t going for the lines. I’m not that good at tennis,” Sabalenka laughed as she reflected on her win during an on-court interview. “I was focused from the beginning to the end. Even when she broke me back and made those not-so-smart mistakes, I was able to still keep fighting, keep working, keep playing.”
Her title match showdown was guaranteed to be a blockbuster. In the second semifinal, awaits defending champion Iga Swiatek or the woman she edged for the Melbourne major, Elena Rybakina. World No. 1 Swiatek is looking to avenge her Australian Open defeat to the reigning Wimbledon title holder.
Delayed by more than a half hour due to an audio problem that prevented the usage of Hawkeye Live and the chair umpire’s microphone, neither Sabalenka nor Sakkari produced their best tennis of the event. Sabalenka provided 13 unforced errors in the opening set and double-faulted to relinquish an early break of serve, though Sakkari did little to take advantage as her opponent’s determination proved superior for the bulk of their battle.
In the following game, Sakkari let a 40-15 lead slip, tossing in a double-fault on her second game point. Two monster forehand returns from the No. 2 seed resulted in gaining the re-break. More raw firepower—this time via three first-serve bullets from 15-30 at 4-2—ensured the Belarusian created separation, and she clinched a one-set lead when Sakkari mis-timed a forehand.
Sabalenka is now 15-1 in 2023 when she wins the first set.
This was familiar territory for Sakkari, having won three of her four matches from a set down. Her kick serve failed to avoid Sabalenka’s strike zone as she watched a backhand return winner down the line sail by to drop her opening service game of set two. The No. 7 seed broke right back with a deep forehand return winner that tripped up Sabalenka on the baseline and successfully held as she looked to work her way back into the clash.
“Look for your forehand. Make her play as many balls as possible,” Sakkari’s coach Tom Hill encouraged.
“When you’re in the rally, just stay.”
Sakkari soon had a break point for 3-2, but dumped a tight forehand into the net to miss an opportunity at creating some momentum. In the most competitive stretch of the contest, Sabalenka came through a trying 14-point game to move ahead 4-2. Her fifth break was confirmed with a crosscourt forehand winner, though her backhand return was the star shot during the eight-minute period.
The highlights continued for Sabalenka with an outstretched forehand winner that landed in to the disbelief of Sakkari, followed by two successful trips forward to the net. Sabalenka faced little resistance in serving out the encounter after 83 minutes of work to finish with 21 winners (four aces) and 25 unforced errors (five double faults), along with making 56 percent of her first serves.
Sabalenka, who snapped a two-match losing streak against the Greek, is now a win away from celebrating her fifth WTA 1000 triumph.