By Marko Ukalovic
SAN JOSE, Calif. — A Cinderella story had a fairy tale ending in the final of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic for Saisai Zheng. Playing in her first Premiere-level final, the Chinese native captured her first single’s title beating Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets 6-3 7-6 (7-3) on Sunday afternoon at the San Jose State Tennis Center.
Like she had been doing all week in the tournament to her opponents, Zheng forced Sabalenka to play her style of game and not let Sabalenka be able to use her power and get into a rhythm on the court. Her strategy in playing the no pace, high backhand volleys kept Sabalenka from utilizing her strong forehand volleys against her. Zheng cruised to a 6-3 opening set win.
In the second set, Zheng jumped out to a 2-0 lead and looked to be in control. However, a frustrated Sabalenka (at one point let out a primal scream during the fourth game after one of her many unforced errors) harnessed her emotions in winning the next three games for her only lead of the set.
While Sabalenka was losing her cool (throwing and back kicking her racket on separate occasions), Zheng kept calm throughout the match. She was able to thwart anything Sabalenka threw at her regaining the lead 4-3 the next two games. The set would go back and forth to the tie-breaker where Sabalenka’s unforced errors were too much for her to overcome. A double fault on match point sealed the deal for Zheng and she was able to celebrate her first championship in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd after an hour and 46 minutes.
“Obviously you don’t want to play fast fast fast with her,” said Zheng. “She is the best at that. The tactic for me was to put the ball deep, whenever I see some space let her run and if I can, change the slice or high ball. If I give her the same ball, she will hit a winner from any corner.”
The combination of the many unforced errors and eight double faults put Sabalenka in too deep of a hole she couldn’t climb out of.
“I couldn’t control my emotions,” said the 21 year old Belarusian. “I was screaming some (expletive). I was throwing the rackets. I knew her game, but I wasn’t ready for that (style of play) much. That was my mistake.”
Zheng not only excelled at being able to counter drop shots and shots from up at the net from Sabalenka, but also had a high first-serve percentage finishing 21/29 for a 72% clip.
Zheng credits having a conversation she had with her best friend in China after coming back from Wimbledon where she hadn’t been winning on the tour. It allowed her to refocus her mind and keep things simple and not have high expectations going into tournaments.
“She said to me, ‘You know when you’re not so emotional, you can use your brain and play your best tennis.’ Then I realized I gave myself too much pressure and too much high expectation. This week, I just enjoyed myself, didn’t think too much and played each point. So I really want to thank her for that,” said Zheng.
Zheng, who takes home $151,070 with her win, also thanked her mother for always being there for her throughout her career and her puppy and is excited to see both as she heads to Toronto to play in the Coupe Rogers tournament.
In the doubles final, the Czech-American combo of Kveta Peschke and Nicole Melichar defeated the Japanese duo of Ena Shibahara Shuko Aoyama in straight sets 6-4 6-4.
For Pesche, this was her second consecutive doubles title at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic (she won it with Latisha Chan last year). Both her and Melichar were excited to win the tournament this time around.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Peschke. “I told Nicki (Melichar) about this tournament already last year. I told her I really loved it and she should come and play in it.”
For the duo, this is already an impressive fourth title together after only playing together over a year and a half ago.
“I am very thrilled,” said Melichar. “I have the biggest smile on my face. Especially standing next to this lovely lady. To win (with her), it’s just awesome!”
The Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic drew a total of 15,454 fans in attendance for the entire week of matches this year.