Sabalenka stuns Swiatek, faces Garcia for WTA Finals title

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Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, reacts to winning the second set and match against Iga Swiatek, of Poland, in the singles semifinals of the WTA Finals tennis tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Aryna Sabalenka stood stoically ever so briefly, before crouching for an emphatic fist pump to go with a scream.

Yeah, the seventh-ranked woman in the eight-player WTA Finals couldn't hide the emotion, because she knew exactly what she had done.

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Sabalenka ended world No. 1 Iga Swiatek's 15-match winning streak against top-10 opponents, taking a 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 victory in the semifinals of the season-ending event Sunday night.

The stunner puts Sabalenka in final Monday night against No. 6 Caroline Garcia, who streamrolled Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-2 and can become just the second Frenchwoman to win WTA Finals after Amelie Mauresmo in 2005.

Swiatek, the French Open and U.S. Open champion and runaway leader with eight tour victories, cruised through three round-robin victories, losing just 13 games to give her the longest winning run against top-10 opponents since Steffi Graf won 17 straight in 1987.

Just like that, it was over when the 21-year-old from Poland lost the last five games against a player she had beaten in all four meetings this season.

Sabalenka was No. 1 when she beat Swiatek in round-robin play at last year's WTA Finals, but neither player made the semifinals.

With that much out of the way for both, Sabalenka showed how comfortable she was on the temporary indoor hard court at Dickies Arena. Nine of her 10 career victories have come on hard courts.

“I just want to make sure that every time she plays against me, she knows that she really has to work hard to get a win,” said Sabalenka, whose fourth loss this year to Swiatek was a three-setter in the U.S. Open semifinals. “Only because of this thinking, I was able to play at this amazing level tonight.”

Swiatek fell behind one break in the final set with two wide forehands before another one put her down two breaks. Sabalenka gave herself a match point with her 12th and final ace, then hit another serve so good, Swiatek's lunging return was wide and long.

After a tour-best 67 victories and a 37-match unbeaten run from February to June that was the longest in women’s tennis in a quarter-century, this wasn't quite the ending Swiatek had in mind.

“In the third, I just started making mistakes from shots that I wouldn't make mistakes usually,” Swiatek said. “At the beginning of the first set, I just wanted to be kind of focused. Maybe I didn't realize soon enough that I should be more pepped up.”

Garcia was playing just 24 hours after beating Daria Kasatkina in a tense 80-minute third set to secure the last spot in the semifinals, but needed just 74 minutes total for a career-best fourth victory over a top-five opponent this season.

Garcia never trailed, dominating the fifth-ranked Sakkari in winners (21-8) and aces (6-0).

“I don't know,” Garcia said when asked where she found the energy to dominate after the quick turnaround. “Yesterday, I was a little bit tired, but it was nothing unusual after such a big match.”

Garcia has advanced out of group play in both WTA Finals appearances. The 29-year-old lost in the semifinals in the eight-player event five years ago, which also was the most recent time a player older than Garcia reached the semis (Venus Williams).

“I guess I'm five years older, maybe five years wiser," said Garcia, who was No. 74 about this time last year. “You try to learn from everything. I've got a good team behind me, supporting me when I was a little bit doubting myself.”

Sakkari also was among the five players who have reached the semis their first two times since the round-robin format was reintroduced in 2003. She lost in the semis last year.

Garcia used a 120 mph ace to help erase a break chance for Sakkari and extend her lead to 4-0 in the second set.

Garcia's sixth and final ace answered a double fault that gave Sakkari another break point. Garcia closed out that game for a 5-1 lead on the way to a 3-0 career record against Sakkari.

Sakkari had three straight-set victories in the tournament after coming in with just one win over a top-10 opponent this season.

The 27-year-old from Greece never recovered after dropping her first set of the week, finishing with 11 more unforced errors (19) than winners.

“Not taking away anything from her, I played a very average match from my side,” said Sakkari, who didn't qualify for the WTA Finals until the final event of the regular season. “I wasn’t sharp. I wasn’t energized.”

Defending doubles champs Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova advanced to the title match with a 7-6(5), 6-2 semifinal victory over Lyudmyla Kichenok and Jelena Ostapenko.

The Czech duo will play Veronika Kudermetova and Elise Mertens, 6-1, 6-1 winners over Desirae Krawczyk and Demi Schuurs.

The event was moved to Texas from China over concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official there of sexual assault. Coronavirus restrictions also played a part in the decision. It's the first WTA Finals in the U.S. since 2005.

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