WUHAN (AFP) - Reigning Wuhan Open champion Aryna Sabalenka said her Friday (Sept 27) semi-final victory over world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty tastes sweeter than last year's tournament win after her tough journey on this year's WTA tour.
The 21-year-old Belarusian power-hitter proved she was back in top form and well past her slump as she dismissed Barty 7-5, 6-4 in 103 minutes - setting up a final showdown with American Alison Riske, who toppled Petra Kvitova 7-5, 7-5.
She fired 24 winners and saved four of the five break points she faced against Barty, who needed treatment for a left calf injury halfway through the second set.
It was her 11th consecutive win in Wuhan and takes her career record in China to 28-6.
"It means a lot for me," said the ninth-seeded Sabalenka.
"It feels even better than last year... This year it was a really tough season for me. To get back on that level, it feels much more enjoyable."
Looking to become the first player to successfully defend the Wuhan title - and to be the second two-time champion alongside Kvitova - Sabalenka vows to battle until the last ball.
"I'll be there for the fight. Doesn't matter who is going to be there in the final," she said.
Barty said she was not concerned about her calf injury, but conceded she would need to be vigilant during the tricky final stretch of the season.
It's important at this time of the year to listen to your body," said the 23-year-old Aussie. "There were certain things I wasn't able to do.
Barty explained that she felt the injury early in the first set and that it "progressively got worse" as the match went on.
"I'm sure it's nothing that is too alarming," she added.
Riske, the world No. 35, rallied back from 3-5 down in the second set, saving four set points, on her way to victory over Kvitova that earned her a spot in the biggest final of her career.
Projected to break the top 30 for the first time in the world rankings on Monday, Riske is through to her sixth final at a Chinese tournament, and her second of the year, having finished as runner-up to Sabalenka in Shenzhen last January.
The 29-year-old is enjoying the best season of her career, in which she reached a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon, lifted the trophy in s-Hertogenbosch, and posted four top-10 wins so far.
"I always thought I was good, but I never really embodied that. In the big moments, I wasn't really delivering," admits Riske.
"I feel like it's taken me a while. I had spurts of it. To get the consistency has been a different story. I feel like I have a really good grasp on it. I'm 29, so it's about time I get something right here."