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.”
In a three-hour battle that ended at midnight on Centre Court at the Aviation Club, Daria Kasatkina capitalised on her youth to prevail 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2, saving two match points along the way.
The 20-year-old Russian upset the No. 7 seed and joked after the marathon match that she could go out there and start another contest.
“It was such a tough match. We spent like three hours on the court, but felt like one hour on a court because I was so much in the match, yeah,” said Kasatkina, who faces her fellow Russian Elena Vesnina in Thursday’s quarter-finals. .
“But now I feel a bit weird, yeah, because it’s done. It was such a big battle, such a big fight. So I’m just happy that I survive.”
It was a tug of war throughout with the first set lasting 59 minutes and the second going even longer – 76 minutes to be exact.
Kasatkina produced every shot in the book to survive that tiebreak, pulling off a curling forehand that landed in the corner, reminiscent of her favourite player, Rafael Nadal.
— WTA (@WTA) February 21, 2018
She saved two match points relying on some incredible variety, and won the set on a challenge that showed her ball had clipped the line.
The world No. 24 admits her mind was all over the place during the encounter and it was instinct that got her through in the end.
“I didn’t control my emotions, so… Really, I was just playing with my instincts, and that’s it, because my head was not working anymore,” said Kasatkina.
Referring to that challenge on set point in the second set, she added: “Oh, my God, that shot.
“I decided to challenge just in the last moment. Normally if you are watching from the side, you immediately say ‘challenge’ on this one. I was standing there thinking maybe it’s not. I had four challenges in this tiebreak, and I was thinking to challenge the ball, the only one my set point. Can you imagine what was happening in my head?”
Konta conceded that she ran out of steam towards the end of the match.
“At one point I was laughing, I did think we were playing two separate matches because she looked fresh as a daisy. That was not a great feeling,” said the 26-year-old Konta.
Down a set and a break, a down and out Kasatkina got a much-needed pep talk from coach Philip Dehaes.
“You’re very close. You want this? It’s beautiful out here. The weather is nice. Let’s stay another two hours.”
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 21, 2018
Kasatkina knows she’s due back on court in less than 24 hours for her quarter-final. Asked how she thinks she’ll recover, she said: “Thanks God I’m still young. Yeah, I have still some power, some energy. But of course we will see tomorrow because now I’m under adrenaline, so I don’t feel anything.
“Actually, I’m ready to go and play another one,” she added with a laugh. “But tomorrow we will see.”
Elena Vesnina has come to the defence of French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko saying she needs some time to mature and work on her attitude towards other players.
Vesnina, who claimed a 6-1, 7-6 (6) victory over Ostapenko in the Dubai second round on Wednesday, admits that Ostapenko’s reputation is not the best among their peers in the locker room but she believes the 20-year-old Latvian is improving in the tennis etiquette department.
“She’s a very confident girl, I must say. It helps her a lot. It’s a really good kind of feel that she has inside of her. A lot of players are saying that she’s not really kind of respectful to other girls. I mean, she’s still junior, give her some time. She’s getting better,” said the 31-year-old Vesnina.
“Yeah, she has this confidence in herself. She’s, like, different character compared to all the junior girls her age.”
Ostapenko stunned the tennis world when she came back from a set and a break down to defeat Simona Halep in the French Open final last year as an unseeded player.
She has a fiery personality that often rubs people the wrong way.
“There is some talks in the locker room sometimes. In the beginning, she had some problems. She was not shaking hands right, proper, blah, blah, blah, all these kind of things,” explained Vesnina.
“I was straight with her. I was telling her right away in her face. She’s actually answering me. I have a good contact with her. I’m going to tell it to her face. You shouldn’t say that, you shouldn’t do that.
“She actually sees that. She is kind of changing. I’m kind of her mentor, coach,” joked the Russian world No. 23.
“I know she’s young and she has all this pressure around her right now. I think, my opinion, she’s getting better, definitely getting better.”
Ostapenko concedes that Vesnina is someone who has experience and can teach her a thing or two.
“She’s very experienced and I think she’s a very smart girl,” Ostapenko told Sport360 of the Russian former Wimbledon semi-finalist.
“She’s been on tour for a long time and of course you can learn some things from her. If she can help with anything, she’s very experienced so you can learn some things from her.”
Ostapenko, ranked No. 6 in the world, has had a rough start to her 2018 season. She is 3-6 win-loss so far this year and her three wins came against opponents ranked 93 or lower.
The young Latvian has lost her opening match four times this season and she confessed that she’s still trying to adjust to life as a top-10 player.
While she attempted to sound positive after her defeat, saying she’ll do her best to look ahead and move past it, Ostapenko also acknowledged how tough that is to pull off.
Asked if staying positive is an easy thing for her to do after a loss, Ostapenko said: “Of course no because I think I really love winning and if I lose I take it very hard, it’s very hard for me to lose because I’m very competitive and I will just give my everything to try and win the match and if I’m losing I’m really disappointed after the match.
“Of course I’m trying to take good things out of it. Because this season I entered as a top-10 player and of course everybody expects more from me and almost every match I play, I play as a favourite and I really have to show my best. But that’s not easy with traveling and everything so I think everything will come with experience because it’s my first season as a top-10 player. And I think there’s still a long way until the end of the season so hopefully I can do much better in the tournaments and even when I lose I’ll just work even harder.”
Vesnina empathises with Ostapenko’s position and believes the young Latvian has the courage in her to get over this hump.
“I would say she’s brave, brave enough to say something in her face. She can say that, Oh, this player is nothing special. This player is like No. 3 in the world. You know, this kind of way,” said Vesnina, who faces Daria Kasatkina in Thursday’s quarter-finals.
“She’s kind of brave, confident in herself. She’s not afraid of everyone. That’s why she won French Open. She’s not afraid. She’s fearless.
“Now she’s getting in a bit different moment in her life. She’s defending a lot of points.
“She has this Grand Slam title. Nobody will take it away from her. She has the game. That’s the most important. Maybe she has some problems with her game, with some psychology, mental part. She needs to, you know, get more mature, get her emotions right.
“But definitely she’s a great player. We will see many, many matches of her in the future. She will win many tournaments in the future.”
The unique Dubai surface and conditions and quick turnaround from Doha (Ostapenko won the doubles final on Sunday and flew straight here) meant that she couldn’t adjust in time for this tournament.
Ostapenko didn’t suffer a dip in form right after her French Open title. She actually reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon a few weeks after her Paris breakthrough, and she had a strong Asian swing in the fall, winning a title in Seoul and reaching the semi-finals in Wuhan and Beijing to secure a berth in the WTA Finals for the first time.
Turns out having such a clear target, like qualifying for Singapore, is what drove her to success end of last year.
“I think after Wimbledon I took some time off and I was not that ready for the US series so I didn’t play amazing. I just realised after the US series that I was not ready to play it,” Ostapenko said.
“Then I really wanted to get to Singapore so after US series I just came home, I took a couple of days off then I just started to work so hard because I really wanted to make it to Singapore and I think it paid off because I won Seoul and made two semis so I had three great weeks, so I got to Singapore, that was my goal.
“I think when you lose you start to work harder sometimes it’s even helpful to lose because then you’re more motivated because you want to play another tournament, you want to win it and you want to have the feeling I had at the French Open.”