Dubai: Arianne Hartono played some of the “best tennis” of her career to get past a gutsy Heather Watson 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5), while Anastasia Tikhonova waltzed past Nigina Abduraimova 6-0, 6-4 to set up a meeting in the singles final at the 26th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge on Sunday.
Nearly down and out and staring at defeat at 4-5 and 0-40 in the third set, former British No 1 Watson clawed back to push the set into a deciding tiebreaker that Hartono eventually went on to win and land in her first-ever career W100 final.
Her opponent in Sunday’s final will be Anastasia Tikhonova, who surprisingly had it easy while brushing off big-serving Nigina Abduraimova in straight sets 6-0, 6-4 in exactly 90 minutes.
Quick off the blocks
In a close match, Hartono was quick off the blocks with a couple of breaks and serving for the opening set at 5-2. But Watson came right back and broke back a couple of times to eventually take the tiebreaker 7-2.
Hartono was not one to give up easily as she came roaring back to take the second set quite easily 6-3 to set up a deciding and entertaining third set.
Hartono, going 5-4 and serving for the match 40-0, seemed to have succumbed under pressure and suddenly found herself pushed to the wall by a resolute Watson.
The 27-year-old Dutch player once again moved clear 6-5, only to see Watson break back and draw level at 6-6 to send the match into the tiebreaker that Hartono went on to win 7-5 in three hours and six minutes.
“I knew I had to play my best tennis-ever if I wanted to get past her,” Hartono told reporters later.
“This match has been tiring, but certainly an amazing experience of playing and beating one of the best players on the WTA. I always knew this one was going to be tough, but I just decided to fight for each and every point. We spent more than three hours on court and that is a testament that neither of us was willing to give up,” Hartono added.
Switching off emotions
Asked about her near meltdown while serving for the set and match, Hartono admitted that her nerves got the better of her. “Of course, it was all mental then. Imagine I am serving to be in my first-ever 100K final. What more could I think of?” she asked.
“But luckily, I was able to refocus again and just keep going point by point. I am a tough person mentally, and there was no way I was going to give in so easily,” Hartono added.
Hartono’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be Tikhonova after the Russian brushed aside big-serving Uzbek, Abduraimova in straight sets.
“My key tonight was just switching off my emotions. It works really for me, especially now that I have been on the circuit for some time. At first I used to try and stay aggressive, but then I had no control over the actual points,” Tikhonova said.
“We have played each other twice earlier this year and I have won on both occasions. Maybe that was at the back of her mind.”
Watson overcomes disappointment
Tikhonova did not have too many expectations heading into a final against another tricky player like Hartono. “We have played once before, maybe a couple of years back. But things are different now and I will see how I need to tackle her tomorrow,” Tikhonova added. “For sure, it is going to be an interesting and hard-fought final.”
Meanwhile, Heather Watson overcame her disappointment of missing out in the singles when she teamed up with Olivia Nicholls for an emphatic 6-0, 6-1 win over second seeds Viktoria Hruncakova and Dalila Jakupovic.
Watson and Nicholls will meet top-seeded pair of Timea Babos and Vera Zvonareva in Sunday’s final, while Tikhonova will be up against Hartono to decide the singles champion.
Singles (semi-finals): Arianne Hartono bt Heather Watson 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5); Anastasia Tikhonova v Nigina Abduraimova 6-0, 6-4.
Doubles (semi-finals): Olivia Nicholls/Heather Watson bt Viktoria Hruncakova/Dalila Jakupovic 6-0, 6-1.
Sunday’s Order of Play:
Doubles final (1pm start): Timea Babos/Vera Zvonareva vs Olivia Nicholls/Heather Watson; (followed by) Singles final: Anastasia Tikhonova vs Arianne Hartono.