By Marko Ukalovic
SAN JOSE, Calif. — SaiSai Zheng had never played in a Premiere-level final, until now. Roughing out the 86 degree temperature at match time, Zheng was able to cruise her way into the final of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic over the seventh seeded Maria Sakkari in straight sets 7-6 6-2 in the first semi-final match of the day.
Zheng out battled Sakkari in a tightly contested first set that went to a tiebreaker. Zheng was able to win the tiebreaker 7-5 and seized control of the match from there on out.
“The last time I played Sakkari I remember she didn’t like the no pace, high back hand (volleys),” said Zheng. “This was one of the tactics I used today and it worked.”
Sakkari, who was looking to play in her second consecutive MSVC final, was frustrated throughout the second set whenever Zheng answered one of her volleys during a rally. In the final game, Sakkari double-faulted twice with the second one clinching the match for Zheng.
Sakkari mentioned she was a bit fatigued from her quarterfinal match just 24 hours earlier, but blamed a lackluster effort on her part as the main reason she lost the match to Zheng.
“I think I played really, really bad the whole match,” said the 23-year-old Athens native. “I think she (Zheng) has a tricky game which played a huge role in the match. I think my level (of play) was pretty poor today to win that match after coming from a win like that (in the quarterfinals) yesterday.”
This was only the second time the two have squared off against each other with Sakkari defeating Zheng three years earlier at Wimbledon.
“It’s been amazing to get into the final,” said Zheng. “I try to tell myself just enjoy who I am on the court and play my game. (It) turns out (to be) a good result.”
In the night cap, second seeded Aryna Sabalenka used her sheer power to dominate her semifinal against fifth seeded Donna Vekic taking her out in straight sets 6-4, 6-3.
The first set featured nobody being able to hold serve in the first seven games as each player took turns breaking the other’s serve. However, in the ninth game, Sabalenka took control of the match finally winning serve and winning the next two games to close out the first set.
“I was struggling today with my serve,” said Vekic, who was looking for her third top 10 victory of the season. “She (Sabalenka) played very well. It’s tough to play against a player like that without (having a good) first serve.”
In the second set, Sabalenka jumped out to a 3-0 lead with her strong serve that at times was too hot to handle for Vekic. Down 5-2, Vekic showed her mental toughness coming back from 0-40 to end up winning the game, but it was too little too late as Sabalenka finished her off in the next game to punch her way into the final for a showdown with Zheng.
“I tried to put more balls in than her,” said a jokingly Sabalenka regarding her strategy going into the match. “She (Vekic) doesn’t have a bad part of her game, so it was about fighting and show your best (game).”
Despite not making it to the final, Vekic seem to take it in stride, despite an overzealous fan shouting out a weird request to her.
“One guy in the crowd said he’ll kill himself if I don’t hold (serve), so I thought I really needed to hold,” said a laughing Vekic.
For Sabalenka, she is looking forward for her chance to win her second single’s title of the year on what has been an up and down season up to this point.
“I’m looking forward to the final,” said the 21-year Belarusian. “Hopefully I can show the same (level of play) as today. Saisai is a great player and it’s going to be a tough match.”