A well-respected veteran and an emerging talent came out on top in the semifinals of the Nature Valley International held at Devonshire park. Here are my reports about both matches that I attended in Eastbourne.
Aryna Sabalenka d. Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3 1-6 6-3
Under bright skies, Sabalenka and Radwanska took center court at 11AM. Radwanska began the match strong, coming up with an immediate break. However, six breaks happened before either player would hold serve. With power shots, Sabalenka held in game 7 to lead 4-3 and followed with a break after multiple Radwanska errors to go up 5-3. The Belarusian then closed the first set with an ace exclamation point.
Although Radwanska was immediately broken in the second set, she seemed to have a better read and her opponent lost focus. But like the first set, the two exchanged breaks until Radwanska held to 3-1. Perhaps the reality and pressure of a final were sinking in for Sabalenka and with her errors mounting, Radwanska decisively closed the second set.
Sabalenka regrouped in the final set, She immediately held winning a long rally. Her determination was now audible. The key to the set came at game 6. The world No.45 Sabalenka broke Radwanska, blasting a return to 3-3. She followed up the break with another hold, despite more errors and a double-fault. Now up 5-3, the 20-year-old had the chance to serve out the set. Given the frequent breaks of serve today, that could have been a tall order. She found the hold with a 109MPH serve and a bit of help from Radwansha.
Caroline Wozniacki  d. Angelique Kerber  2-6 7-6(4) 6-4
As many predicted, the 15th meeting of Wozniacki and Kerber did not disappoint. Out of the gates, the German seemed have a more aggressive strategy, but the Dane was playing very solid tennis.
Kerber won the initial battle of the counter punchers, taking the first set in under 30 minutes, finishing it strong with a love hold.
In the second set, both players continued to produce high-quality tennis and pushed each other to take risks. Wozniacki earned the first break and went up 3-0, but Kerber dug in. With the score at 4-3, Wozniacki had an animated consultation with her coach (father Piotr).
Kerber continued to apply pressure and broke Wozniacki for a 6-5 lead. While in that must-break moment, Wozniacki came through and pressed for the tiebreak. The tiebreak ensured with neither player backing down. Wozniacki would find the upper hand to 4-0, but Kerber won the next two points to 4-2. The top seed closed with a powerful return that clipped the line.
As the third set began, both players remained on point and opened with holds. After a Kerber double-fault, Wozniacki had the first break to 3-2. That was no indication of the outcome. They traded holds and Kerber produced a love hold powering her way back to 5-4. Caroline was too steady, coming up with a 110MPH ace and needing only one match point to close the high-quality match.
Both players applied pressure and pace to force errors from their opponent. Caroline was perhaps a bit more hungry today.
The WTA Nature Valley International final is one of contrasts and commonalities. This is a landmark year for Wozniacki, who won her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. Sabalenka has been on tour for just two years and has now reached her first Premier-level final.
Sabalenka recalled watching Wozniacki’s warrior-like game as a young girl. She knows tomorrow will be a marathon. Physically, the world No.2 Wozniacki appears to be able to run for days. Note that Sabalenka was also a Nature Valley International doubles semifinalist with partner Su-Wei Hsieh. She has played a tremendous amount of tennis this week and admitted to fatigue.
While Wozniacki has experience, she also has expectations on her shoulders. Sabalenka has the excitement of a first final, with no real expectations except that which she puts on herself. Wozniacki holds 28 career titles and Sabalenka has the opportunity to win her first. This premier meeting of experience versus exuberance promises intrigue.