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With Maria Sakkari at an 11, Aryna Sabalenka secures SF spot at WTA Finals
The former world No. 2 wasn’t in complete control of her destiny despite winning two of three round-robin matches, but gave herself the best possible chance with a decisive victory over Jessica Pegula.
Published Nov 05, 2022
WATCH: Sakkari discusses the conundrum of deciding the fate of friends Sabalenka and Jabeur in Fort Worth.
FORT WORTH, Texas—Last year, Maria Sakkari denied Aryna Sabalenka her first WTA Finals semifinal, rallying from a break down in the final set to send the top seed tumbling out of Guadalajara.
This year. Sakkari paid it forward and indirectly helped the former world No. 2 over the finish line by defeating Ons Jabeur—though Sabalenka only needed Sakkari to win a set—and eliminating the talented Tunisian from round-robin play.
“I think so,” Sakkari said if she thinks this makes she and Sabalenka square. “She asked me before the match if I'm ready. She was like, ‘From a scale of one to 10 how ready are you?’ I said ‘11.’”
Sabalenka and Jabeur both began the afternoon still in contention but not entirely in charge of their fates, making for some interesting pre-match interactions.
“Ons only wished me good luck with interesting face before the match. I said, ‘You too,’” Sabalenka jokingly recalled in her post-match press conference, scowling for emphasis.
And there was Sakkari, friend to both and caught in the middle.
“I like both of them!” she insisted. “And it was, it was very tough for me to just, you know, distract my mind from that.”
I was thinking about, that no matter what happens, just win another match, finish the season with the win. Just do it for the future. Aryna Sabalenka
Round robin action rarely yields three players with winning records; the most famous example occurred in 2009 when Juan Martin del Potro sat on court after defeating Andy Murray, waiting to hear if he had indeed qualified for the semifinals in London.
But that was among the possible permutations coming into Friday—one that felt exceedingly plausible given 1) Sabalenka was up against slumping Jessica Pegula, and 2) Jabeur held a slight head-to-head edge against an ostensibly demotivated opponent who had already won the Nancy Richey Group regardless of today’s result.
Their most recent encounter came in Rome, when Sakkari failed to convert a 6-1, 5-2 lead and fell to the eventual world No. 2 in three sets.
To maximize her shot of reaching the semis, it wasn’t enough for Sabalenka to simply beat Pegula; she had to do it in straight sets.
“I said to my team that I would prefer play second match to 100% know what I have to do to get through,” sighed Sabalenka, who said she was spoiled on advancement scenarios during a newsfeed interview. “I was thinking about, that no matter what happens, just win another match, finish the season with the win. Just do it for the future.”
Looking ahead somehow grounded her in the present. Sabalenka quickly moved ahead in both sets only for her recently-reworked serve to buckle each time she tried serving it out. The pro-American crowd eagerly cheers Pegula on in the hopes of seeing a final set—including one fan that especially irked Sabalenka.
“He was just too much,” she said of her decision to call him out during the on-court interview. “He was doing it between the serves. He was super annoying.”
Not the fan, the scenario pressure, nor Sabalenka’s own serve was enough to deter the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist. She broke Pegula in both sets to triumph, 6-3, 7-5.
“I kept telling myself that just stay focused, just keep fighting, [that] it doesn't matter, two or three sets. Just keep fighting. Just get the win, get extra points and then move on.
“You're trying to not think about this but anyway this thing is just stuck in your mind. I was, not like tight, but I was playing with control, which is not working with me.”
Sabalenka renewed her reckless abandon at a critical point, crunching one last backhand winner to, quite literally, put the ball in Jabeur’s court.
“I was trying to focus on so many things at the same time,” Jabeur admitted after the 6-2, 6-3 defeat. “For me today was not about just qualifying, but I really wanted to play better than this. I definitely didn't want to finish the season like this.”
This season has been very, I would say interesting. That's the word. It's been a lot of ups and downs but at the same time, as I said multiple times, it was a learning lesson for me and I'm gonna stick to that because I don't want to just keep whining about it. Maria Sakkari
Barring a lapse in focus in the second-set tiebreaker against Sabalenka on Monday and Jabeur would have easily advanced. For Jabeur, it was a lesson learned when it comes to the perils of round-robin play; for Sakkari, it was one more stop on her late-season redemption tour—one she enthusiastically took.
“It was another great win,” she said, all smiles after a tumultuous year that nearly kept her from qualifying. “And it was another great opportunity for me to improve my game and do things better than I did last time. So that was, that was very successful.”
As for Sabalenka, this ending was never in doubt, and it appears her positivity made all the difference.
“I think my coach already booked the court for tomorrow,” she said with a laugh. “He tries to stay positive.”