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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Saturday November 13, 2021

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka flicked a switch to rally past Iga Swiatek at the WTA Final in Guadalajara, setting up a showdown with Maria Sakkari for a semifinal spot on Monday.

Photo Source: Getty

Looking out of sorts after dropping the opening set against Iga Swiatek on Saturday night at Guadalajara, Aryna Sabalenka flicked a switch, fired up the Mexican fans, and roared to a thrilling 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory to keep her hopes alive at the Akron WTA Finals.

Tennis Express

“With the crowd, I felt amazing,” she said. “I just enjoy every second on the court. I mean, I have never felt this support before.”

Sabalenka will face Maria Sakkari on Monday in the final round robin match for both players, with the winner qualifying for the semifinals.

For now, she can celebrate a hard-won and inspiring victory.

The top-seeded 23-year-old completed a stunning transformation from a discombobulated player that couldn’t find the court to a focused fighter that routinely took the racquet out of Swiatek’s hands, and closed her first career meeting against the Pole with a late break in set three, followed by a confident service hold to close affairs in two hours and 18 minutes.

For those who had tuned into the opening set and watch Swiatek barely put a foot wrong as Sabalenka struggled to put one foot in front of the other, the end outcome may have come as a shock. But Sabalenka’s comeback had long been in the works, and the Belarusian entered the late stages of the third set neck and neck with Swiatek, who had seen her level dip in the middle set but was now bristling for the fight in the third.

It was a dreamy first-time meeting between two players who are destined to have a lot to say at the game’s most important events over the next decade. Though neither played perfectly – the mile-high altitude has made that virtually impossible this week in Guadalajara – both demonstrated their adaptability as well as their athleticism with regularity down the stretch.

Swiatek’s loss eliminates her from semifinal contention but she has lots to be proud of after bouncing back from a rough opening match against Maria Sakkari that left her in tears. On Saturday she played with poise and belief, and hung with red-lining Sabalenka until the bitter end.

As for Sabalenka, she has introduced herself as a potential threat to win the title. Faced with adversity and on the brink of going down without a whimper on Saturday, she produced unassailable tennis and somehow fought through whatever doubts had plagued her through her first three sets in Guadalajara.

“I was, like, really crazy. I couldn't just stop myself and kind of put myself back in the match. So whatever...” she said after she dropped the final ten games of her match to Paula Badosa, a 4-2 lead in the opening set rapidly transformed into a lopsided blow to the confidence.

After her victory on Saturday, Sabalenka admitted that she had “given up” against Badosa, and her major hurdle against Swiatek was to keep fighting to find her best tennis, in spite of the conditions.

“I guess I was needed little bit more time to adjust for these conditions,” she said. “After the first set I was just keep saying to myself, You have to get through this challenge, you have to get through this challenge, over and over again and again. I was just like saying, You have to fight, you can't give up like you did in the first match.”

She had lost 16 of 18 games prior to the second set with Swiatek today, and seemed to be spiraling, but somehow Sabalenka found her footing and her game instantly clicked into place. She drove winners into the corners and raised her arms, asking the crowd to get behind her – and they did. This process repeated itself until the match was won, Sabalenka asking for and receiving support, and her game rising to high tide.

Taking a Page from the Leylah Fernandez Playbook?

After the match, WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen asked Sabalenka if she had learned from her loss to Leylah Fernandez in the US Open semifinals. In that match it was the young Canadian who urged the crowd to rally behind her as she produced an epic victory.

Sabalenka says the match caused her to realize that it's okay to ask the crowd for a little help.

"I remember on that match against Leylah, close to the end of the match I was really not like disappointed, but I was really sad about the atmosphere," she said. "It's not against me, they were just supporting her. I was kind of like asking them to support. After that I felt like maybe sometimes you just have to ask for support, it's nothing bad."

Thanks to the crowd - and her ability to use them, the top seed is still in the mix in Guadalajara.

“This is really important for me,” Sabalenka concluded as she looked ahead to her critical match on Monday against Sakkari. “I'm really happy that I have this chance to get through this group.

“Maria is a tough opponent. She's a great fighter. It's always have great matches against her. It's always big battles. I'm just really looking forward. I'm really happy that I have this chance. I'll just do my best. I'll just bring everything I have on the court. No matter what, I will fighting. I'll not do the same mistake like I did in the first match. This time I will never give up again.”


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