Elena Rybakina will go for ‘Sunshine Double’ against Petra Kvitova in Miami Open final

·4 min read
Pedro Portal/pportal@miamiherald.com

Elena Rybakina is playing with house money after saving a match point in her third-round victory over Spain’s Paula Badosa in the Miami Open Masters 1000 tournament.

Don’t bet against this rising star with the booming serve, who kept the arduous Sunshine Double sweep alive in a multiple rain-delayed 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 semifinal victory over No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked American from Boca Raton, late Thursday evening.

Twice Pegula served for the first set but was broken, and then 3-0 in the second set, only to see her lead evaporate under Rybakina’s pinpoint groundstrokes.

“It’s really difficult because of different conditions in these two weeks and by the matches you could see that it’s much more difficult for me here than Indian Wells,’’ said Rybakina, 23, ranked seventh but seeded 10th, who avenged a loss to Pegula in a Round-of-32 match in Miami last year.

“It’s just the finals, still close, but at the same time far. The Sunshine Double [Indian Wells Masters 1000 and Miami], I try my best and, hopefully, I can make it.’’

If so, Rybakina would be the fifth woman to accomplish the difficult double, joining Steffi Graf (1994, ’96), Kim Clijsters (2005), Victoria Azarenka (2016) and Iga Swiatek (2022).

Rybakina didn’t find out who her opponent in Saturday’s 3 p.m. final (men’s doubles final at 12:30 p.m.) would be until late Friday afternoon when future Hall of Famer and 16th-seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic outlasted unseeded Romanian Sorana Cirstea 7-5, 6-4 in a rain-postponed semifinal between 30-somethings longtime rivals.

The final will pit two of the WTA’s most powerful servers, with Rybakina leading all women with 212 aces in 2023. During this fortnight, Rybakina has slammed 10 or more aces in all five matches, a feat last achieved by Serena Williams, arguably the greatest server of all time, when she did it at the 2016 Wimbledon.

Rybakina and Kvitova are 1-1 in two meetings, with the Czech winning 6-3, 7-5 in Adelaide, an Australian Open tuneup in January, but Rybakina did beat the fellow 6-footer in Ostrava on Kvitova’s home turf last year.

“Both [Cirstea and Kvitova] are hitting hard, aggressive, and have very good shots,’’ said Rybakina, who has won four titles, including the 2022 Wimbledon and Indian Wells. “Against Petra, I played in the beginning of the year and she played really well, but it was much faster courts there. I think it’s going to be different.”

Kvitova, 33, who won 13 of her 14 service games in her quarterfinal victory over Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, has won 29 titles, including eight WTA 1000s.

“She’s a big hitter, a big server as well; I’m the same, so it depends on how we handle the pressure from the opponent,’’ Kvitova said.

Cirstea, 32, was up 5-2, 0-30 on Kvitova’s serve, and then 5-4, 40-15 in the first set when maybe she realized it had been 10 years since she was in a similar position in the Toronto 1000 final. She allowed the more experienced big-match Kvitova reel off 10 consecutive points and seven games straight to put a stranglehold on the match.

“She came up with some very good returns on those points,’’ said Cirstea, who finished a resurgent month with a quarterfinal berth at Indian Wells and the semis here. “That was the moment that changed the momentum of the match. From there she went more for her shots, starting swinging freely and I started to be more careful.

“I’m sad about today because I had my chances, but I’m leaving with a smile on my face.”

The 74th-ranked Cirstea, once ranked 21st in 2014, was the fifth lowest-ranked player to reach Miami semis.

The powerful left-handed Kvitova broke immediately to start the second set and didn’t allow a break point all set, before punctuating her first trip to a Miami final in 13 appearances with an unreturnable serve.

“She missed a little bit,” said Kvitova, whose return game was the difference, winning 65 percent of Cirstea’s soft second serves. “After that I kept the momentum on my side and served better.”

Rybakina, a Russian native who began playing for Kazakhstan in 2018 for their federation’s financial support, has won 13 matches in a row, that discounts a walkover loss to Coco Gauff in the Dubai 500 last month due to lower back pain. She has admitted being mentally and physically drained from her monthlong, amazing run, but always seems to play better when she’s down.