Aryna Sabalenka won the Qatar Total Open on Saturday, and she did it in her inimitable style. Seemingly blessed with boundless energy and the attitude of a champion heavyweight boxer, the 21-year-old from Belarus blew past the seasoned Czech Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-3 to lay her hands on the magnificent falcon trophy and claim the $605,000 cheque in front of an appreciative audience that also included His Highness The Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
In a world that fawns over sportspeople blessed with deft touch, the World No. 13 doesn’t offer any apologies about her overwhelmingly explosive style. Indeed her crunching serves and power-packed forehands left Kvitova unnerved, with Sabalenka wrapping up the match in 73 minutes with a shot from the baseline, the ball luckily bouncing off the net and inducing a mis-hit.
That was kind of anticlimactic, and the Belarusian reacted with a sheepish grin even as Kvitova threw her head back, eyes closed and frustration writ large over her face.
“I mean it feels so amazing and I couldn't really expect the title during my first time in Doha,” said Sabalenka at her post-match press conference where she giggled all the way.
Of her five titles before Doha, four came in China — two in Wuhan, one in Shenzhen and one in Zhuhai.
“I love playing in China, it's like I'm doing well there. I enjoy it there, but I'm happy to finally win a trophy not in China (laughing.) And, yeah, I'm really happy, it feels so special for me.”
After beating top seed and World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the semi-finals on Friday in a three-setter, her third in the tournament, Kvitova was obviously stretched. She struggled for rhythm and hardly found any momentum worth the name. That obviously proved disastrous against an opponent whose understanding of the game is refreshingly uncluttered as is her attitude towards life in general.
Sabalenka opened proceedings by winning the first game at love, and after missing two break points in the next, broke Kvitova in the fourth with a series of fierce returns to go 3-1 up. The remainder of the set was pretty much uneventful, but Sabalenka nevertheless produced a cracking ace to finish it in style.
The second set was a bit more fiercely fought, with the fourth game proving a battle of endurance. A bit too eager, errors crept into Sabalenka’s game, but Kvitova couldn’t capitalise on them as she missed five break points.
The game continued for 11 minutes but on the eighth deuce Sabalenka decided she’d had enough. She produced two thundering aces out of nowhere to draw level at 2-2.
The next two games went with serve, but in the seventh Sabalenka broke Kvitova at love to go up 4-3 and then retained her serve to put the Czech in a now-or-never situation.
Kvitova had one last chance but her serves were met with some ferocious returns as Sabalenka went ahead 40-love. Kvitova rallied to force deuce after Sabalenka missed break point after break point. But a shot into the net by Kvitova gave Sabalenka the championship point, and the Belarusian duly capitalised on it to seal her sixth title on the Tour.
In the end the numbers told their own story. Sabalenka’s first serve had a win percentage of 73, while Kvotova’s was just 47. Kvitova couldn’t win any of her five break points, while Sabalenka made good on three out of eight. Sabalenka’s first and second serve average speeds were more than 10kph faster than Kvitova’s. And on top of it all, Sabalenka produced seven aces as against her rival’s two.
Sabalenka added that the key to her success was that she played every point as it were the last of the match.
“It's a final, it's something different. It's always different than like every match in the tournaments. Yeah, I was just like focused, really focused on each point and played every point like the last point and like I'm actually losing. So, yeah, that was the secret, I think.”
Sabalenka also revealed her focus and determination grew after she lost her father Sergey at the young age of 44 last year.
“He was my biggest motivation, and I'm doing it for him,” said Sabalenka, instantly tearing up.
Kvitova, who won the Qatar title in 2018, was full of praise for her young rival.
“Well, first of all definitely Aryna played an amazing match. For sure she didn't give me anything for free. I had one chance in the second set for break of her serve, but I just couldn't make it,” said Kvitova.
“But it was a very tight game and probably that really helped her to win the second set. But definitely she played really great as she played all week, so definitely she deserves it, for sure.
“I wasn't playing probably what I wanted to, but she didn't give me anything to play my game. But, yeah, that's how it is and anyway I'm glad for the great week.”
Kvitova also conceded that Sabalenka’s serve was key to her success.
“Well, definitely the biggest difference was the serve, for sure. I couldn't put the first in, she put like 80 percent or something like that. I couldn't get to the rally with my shots and my power.
“I tried to go a little bit for the rallies and I wasn't lucky over there. But, yeah, it's been tough. It is my game as well, for sure, but today she was just better.”
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