DUBAI: World No. 30 Barbora Krejcikova produced a stunning comeback to deliver Aryna Sabalenka her first defeat of 2023 and send last month’s Australian Open champion crashing out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships under the lights. The Czech’s reward? A semifinal clash against American Jessica Pegula, who received a walkover when her opponent Karolina Muchova withdrew with an abdominal injury.
Krejcikova, a 2021 French Open Singles winner and 10-time Grand Slam Doubles winner, reached the Singles final at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium in 2021. Yet she looked destined for defeat on Thursday when Sabalenka picked up where she left off in a from-behind victory over reigning champion Jelena Ostapenko the previous night. On that occasion, after losing the first set, Sabalenka had dropped just two games to close out the win, and that high level of play continued against Krejcikova, delivering a bagel to claim the first set 6-0.
It took Krejcikova 44 minutes just to get on the board with an imperious Sabalenka, ranked No. 2 in the world and having broken to take a 3-1 lead in the second set, looking all but confirmed to book her place in the final four.
But Krejcikova had other plans.
“I came with a strategy,” she said. “I mean, at the beginning it wasn’t really working, but I just felt like ‘keep going and ‘just try to do your best.’ I expected it was going to be really difficult, but then also, on the other hand, I felt like I have a belief that I can play with these girls. Even with the best ones, I believe I can beat them.”
And beat them she can. Turning devastation to elation, the 2021 Dubai finalist fought back to win 11 of the final 15 games and end Sabalenka’s 13-match unbeaten streak 0-6, 7-6(2), 6-1.
“In the middle of the second set, I don’t know exactly how it was, but I broke her at some point and from there I just loosened up a little bit more,” she added. “I started to feel my shots a little bit better and felt that I was getting in control.”
Friday’s semifinal with World No. 3 Pegula provides Krejcikova an early chance to make up for her defeat to the American in the quarterfinals at last month’s Australian Open. It’s not a chance she intends to let slip by.
“I’m looking forward for the revenge because in Australia I lost to her,” she said. “I definitely want to go there again and enjoy the match, fight for every single ball. If I’m able to do that, I definitely have a chance.”
Earlier in the evening, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff produced a steady and assured performance to defeat compatriot Madison Keys 6-2, 7-5 to set up her own semifinal with World No. 1 and top seed Iga Swiatek. Gauff served well and kept Keys on the run, and even when her older, more experienced opponent broke back after losing her serve, Gauff stayed calm and efficiently wrapped up the second set.
Considered the next big thing, Gauff has faced Swiatek five times, and each has ended in straight-set defeats. On the prospect of facing the Pole in what is only her second WTA 1000 semifinal, Gauff was typically pragmatic.
“I mean, no pressure,” she said. “She’s playing at the top of her game. It’s going to be a challenge, but, to be honest, I think it’s a good match-up just to see where I can maybe improve on. You know, there’s no pressure for me. I’m just going to go out there swinging. Whatever happens, happens. You just kind of have to go in believing you can win even when the odds seem stacked against you.”