Daria Kasatkina came back from the brink for a second time this week, saving three match points against Garbine Muguruza to upset the No. 2 seed 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-1 in a dramatic affair on Friday to reach the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
The 20-year-old Russian, who saved two match points against Johanna Konta in the second round on Wednesday, once again showcased grit and courage to claim her first victory over Muguruza in three meetings, and reach the third WTA final of her career.
Of the four semi-finalists, Kasatkina had spent the most time on court heading into her showdown with Muguruza, having battled through six hours and 32 minutes of tennis in her opening three rounds, including a three-hour battle Konta.
In comparison, Muguruza had spent a total of three hours and 29 minutes on court prior to their semi-final, but she played one less match due to her bye in the first round.
Kasatkina, the youngest Russian to make the semi-finals in Dubai since Victoria Azarenka reached the last-four in 2010, is looking to become just the second woman from her country to win the title here at the Aviation Club and first since Elena Dementieva in 2008.
She is guaranteed a career-high ranking of No. 22 on Monday but could break the top-20 for the first time if she wins the Dubai title.
In their most recent encounter, Kasatkina served for the match and held a match point before losing to Muguruza in the Brisbane last-16 last year.
The tables turned this time around.
Friday’s match was a thriller from the get-go.
The pair engaged in some punishing lengthy rallies from the start and hung on to their own service games before Muguruza broke for a 4-2 lead on a long lob from Kasatkina.
Some spot-on serving from the Spaniard saw her wrap up the opening set in 37 minutes.
The stands were the fullest they’d been all week, and spectators were in a good mood, starting Mexican waves and cheering with gusto. But they applauded midway through a point during the fifth game of the second set when Kasatkina hit a lob and their reaction distracted Muguruza who missed the following overhead smash.
It prompted umpire Kader Nouni to warn them to wait until the end of the point before clapping.
A marathon seventh game that lasted over 10 minutes gave Muguruza the break for 4-3. Up to that point, the No. 2 seed had dropped just one point on her serve in the second set. Yet somehow she got broken in the next game, at love, as Kasatkina drew level for 4-all.
The Russian fell behind 0-40 in the next game but produced some huge cross-court forehands and serves to save five break points. But after seven minutes of back-and-forth, Muguruza got the break to put herself in a position to serve for the match.
But Kasatkina wasn’t going down without a fight. She painted the line with a forehand to get two break points. Muguruza came up with two big serves to get to deuce, but she double-faulted to face a third break point. This time the Spaniard sent a ball wide and Kasatkina was back in it at 5-all.
The set went to a tiebreak and Muguruza quickly went up 3-0. But Kasatkina pegged her back, drawing level on a 36-shot rally.
The world No. 24 got her first set point at 6-5 but a bold Muguruza covered the net well and found the winner to save it.
A long forehand from Muguruza gave Kasatkina a second set point but the Wimbledon champion again found her serve when she needed it to get out of trouble.
Muguruza got her hands on a first match point at 8-7. The point had to be replayed due to a wrong call from a line judge that was correctly challenged by Kasatkina. A gutsy forehand saw her save the match point for 8-8.
Kasatkina double-faulted to give Muguruza another match point, this time on the Spaniard’s serve, But again Kasatkina saves it with some heroic shot-making for 9-all.
Muguruza got her hands on a third match point but committed a 40th unforced error, an 11th off the backhand side, to let it slip away. She then netted a volley to give Kasatkina a third set point at 11-10. It was the youngster’s turn to make the backhand error and they were back tied at 11-11.
Kasatkina finally took the set on her fourth opportunity to force a decider.
She then broke to start the third set claimed two more breaks to secure a memorable victory in two hours and 33 minutes.
Garbine Muguruza completed a Middle East double over Caroline Garcia, defeating the Frenchwoman for a second time in seven days to reach the semi-finals in Dubai on Thursday.
Muguruza had come back from a set down to beat Garcia in the Doha quarter-finals last week, but this time was more clinical in her victory, that was briefly interrupted by light rain surprising the crowd in a typically dry Dubai.
Garcia entered her Dubai quarter-final showdown with Muguruza having held 18 of her 20 service games throughout the week but the French No. 5 seed dropped serve late in the opening set to fall behind and ultimately lost the clash 7-5, 6-2 committing a slew of unforced errors.
The third-ranked Muguruza had finished her previous match against Catherine “CiCi” Bellis just 17 hours earlier, at 2:00am but managed to recover in time for her triumph over Garcia.
“I was a little bit upset because, you know, you can play late, but it was very late. I ended up sleeping at 4:00am, there’s nothing to eat…” explained the Spaniard, who next takes on Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in Friday’s semi-finals.
“Today I somehow fought with a little bit of the tiredness yesterday. That’s it. One day is going to go my way, one day is going to go against me.”
Muguruza says she had asked to play on another court after the Centre Court matches all lasted longer than expected.
“I think it’s just TV. Obviously nobody thought that all the matches were going to be two hours and a half. But, yeah, they gave me that answer,” she added.
Speaking of her quarter-final success over Garcia, Muguruza said: “I felt much better this match than the match we played in Doha. It’s always difficult because we played almost in the same week twice. When you play a top-10 player, and you beat second time in a row, it gives you a good sign that what I’m doing is right.”
Kasatkina, who saved two match points against Johanna Konta in the second round on Wednesday, reached the semi-finals with a 7-6 (5), 6-1 win over her fellow Russian Elena Vesnina, whom she calls her “Tennis Mama”.
The 20-year-old became the first Russian to make the Dubai semi-finals since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2011.
This is Kasatkina’s second semi-final of the season, having also reached that stage at St. Petersburg earlier this month.
She trails Muguruza 0-2 head-to-head but their most recent meeting, in Brisbane in 2017, was a close encounter that ended 7-6 in the third the Spaniard’s way.
It’s going to be a case of déjà vu in Dubai on Friday as defending champion Elina Svitolina and German No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber face off in the semi-finals, in a rematch of their showdown here last year at the same stage.
Svitolina, the top seed in the Emirates this week, came back from 0-3 down in the second set to defeat Japanese big-hitter Naomi Osaka 6-2, 6-4 in Thursday’s quarter-finals in one hour and 22 minutes.
The 23-year-old is looking to capture a second trophy of the season, having lifted the trophy in Brisbane to kick off her 2018 with a bang, and takes a 6-5 head-to-head record lead over her next opponent Kerber.
Svitolina has been impressive in her title defence campaign so far this week.
“Definitely I’m happy the way I’ve been handling the pressure and tough moments. I had two good matches. I cannot say was amazing tennis, but when I needed I was stepping up and playing well,” said Svitolina, who beat lucky loser Wang Qiang in three sets in her opening match.
“Still I have semi-final ahead of me. I don’t want to say early. But, yeah, the way I was playing, it was enough to go through.”
Last year, Dubai was the biggest title Svitolina had won at the time and she went on to have a great 2017 where she also picked up Premier 5 trophies in Rome and Toronto, and reached the WTA Finals in Singapore.
Her success at the Aviation Club last season saw her collect $487,245 in prize money. Asked how she treated herself with that handsome sum, Svitolina said: “I took a new physio with me. Well, yeah, physio. Bigger team for me. Always investing, trying to invest in myself. Also I had nutritionist added to my team. These cost lots of money. I prefer to do that.”
Svitolina is coached by Frenchman Thierry Ascione, who also works with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Ascione doesn’t travel with her much and is only available to her during the time where Tsonga does not need him.
She often goes to work with him in Paris, where he is based, or he joins her at few tournaments, when possible. Instead, she travels with Andrew Bettles, who acts as a travelling second coach and hitting partner.
“This was actually the idea when I stopped with Iain Hughes. I wanted someone not full-time. I just wanted to stay really focused on what I have to do on the court, stay little bit, like, away from someone talking always on the court,” she explained.
“Last year, it really worked well.”
In town with a new coach this year is Kerber, who joined forces with Wim Fissette end of last season. The German ex-world No. 1 is enjoying a resurgence these past seven weeks following a forgettable 2017.
Her run to the semi-finals saw her defeat Barbora Strycova and Sara Errani in her first two matches before dismissing third-seeded Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-3 in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
The 30-year-old Kerber is particularly proud of how she has bounced back from her difficult 2017.
“Especially after last year where I was sitting home, I told myself, ‘Okay, this is not the end. I know I am a fighter. I will come back and I will go through all the tough preseason, fighting back. This is how I am’.
“Of course, it’s great to being back in the top-10, playing good tennis again. But for me right now, I mean, my goal is improving my game, enjoying my tennis, just trying to continue how I start the year.”
Looking ahead to her semi-final clash with Svitolina, who has won their last four meetings, Kerber said: “We played last year also in the semis. Yeah, she played unbelievable last year. Still a lot of confidence, especially here where she won last year.
“Yeah, it will be a tough match. She’s, yeah, bringing a lot of balls back, playing good tennis, moving good. I think it will be, yeah, a close and tough match tomorrow.”