From the quarterfinals through the final, what is the most notable aspect of how the final three rounds of the Wuhan Open unfolded?
A current tennis pro in Atlanta who is also a life-long friend of mine once said to me “You’re only as good as your second serve,” roughly two-plus decades ago. A lot has changed in tennis since that day, but his statement remains accurate to this day. In fact, I would say that it now carries more validity than ever due to the increasingly aggressive returning that we have witnessed in the last few years in the WTA ranks. Especially younger players and the steady risers in terms of ranking (not age) seem to be on the lookout for that one weak second serve on which they can pounce.
If you need an illustration of what I mean in the above paragraph, look no further than the last three days of action in the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in China this week. I missed only one (Kontaveit-Siniakova) of those seven matches from the quarterfinals to the championship match, but in the six that I watched, the ability of players to get their first serves in on important points played a paramount role in whether they succeeded or not.
Due to space and time constraints, I can’t go into details of every one of those matches, so I will mention only three of them.
The first example is the first quarterfinal on Thursday in which Ashleigh Barty, the only seeded player left in the draw when the quarterfinal round began, advanced to the semis by defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4 in the third set. Pavlyuchenkova had a break lead in the third, serving at 3-2. She lost her break advantage because she could only get her first serve in once in the six points played in that game, which allowed Barty to either bring the heat from the first shot on with her forehand or chip her backhand slice low with more penetration, a shot that troubled Pavlyuchenkova throughout the match.
Back on serve and trailing Barty 4-5 in the final set, Pavlyuchenkova then played a game in which she lost the three points played on her second serve and won the three played on her first before the two players found themselves at deuce. Pavlyuchekonva saved two match points from 15-40 thanks to two first serves that forced Barty to return short and allowed Pavlyuchenkova to win them at the net. At deuce, though, she missed her first serve and Barty hit deeper on the second serve, eventually winning the point when Pavluychenkova had to force the issue during the rally and missed deep. The match ended on that third match point, the only point of the game that Barty managed to win when Pavlyuchenkova got her first serve in (otherwise, four points won on Anastasia’s second serves, three lost on her first).
I will skip the other two quarterfinals that I watched and move to the semis, but don’t let that trick you into thinking that second serves were not as big an issue in those. Monica Puig, for example, is probably still having nightmares about how points went for her against Wang Qiang when she had to resort to her second serves. Hint: she only won 23% of them on her way to a 6-3, 6-1 loss.
Speaking of Wang, she experienced her own nightmare in the semifinals when she faced Anett Kontaveit. Although most people will only remember that Wang retired at 6-2, 2-1 down with a thigh injury, it must be pointed out that Wang had a terrific start to the match and grabbed a 2-0 lead on Kontaveit. In that game, she got in only one first serve, which can only bring bad news against an opponent who gets her groove from how aggressively she can punch the return. Kontaveit ended the game with a return winner on her forehand when Wang had to spin another second serve in the box.
It all went downhill from that point forward, Kontaveit playing better and better, Wang missing too many first serves (second-serve points won hovered around 30-35% throughout the match). Kontaveit won six games in a row (losing only five points in the process) to pocket the first set 6-2. After several games, it also became clear that Wang’s movement was hampered. She retired from the match three games into the second set.
Kontaveit would not get the same chance to catch rhythm on returns against Aryna Sabalenka in the final. There was a reason why Sabalenka led the tournament in aces, first-serve points won, service-points won, and service-games won categories. Accordingly, Aryna served well from the beginning on both first and second serves, essentially sending a message to Kontaveit that the match would be played on the Belarusian’s terms.
Kontaveit, under pressure immediately, missed an overhead at 1-2, 15-0 on her serve which eventually led to the first break of the match, accentuated by a double fault chipped in at 15-30. That break would turn out to be huge, as Sabalenka would never allow Kontaveit to even earn a break point for the duration of the match.
For a great example of how solid she was on her serves, see the 4-2 game later in that first set. It came on the heels of a long and contested game that seemed to give some momentum back to Kontaveit, because she saved multiple break points to avoid going down 5-1 and stayed within a break of her opponent. However, that momentum was yanked out of Kontaveit’s hands when Sabalenka calmly stepped up to the baseline and nailed three first serves, none of which were returned in the court by Kontaveit. Just like that, lost was Kontaveit’s momentum and up 40-0 was Sabalenka. Two points later, she held and never wavered.
Kontaveit did not play a bad match, but her first-serve percentage was low (45%), which meant Sabalenka had more chances to crack her return and put the Estonian on the run, the exact opposite of how Kontaveit marched through to the finals.
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