Former British No 1 Heather Watson eased into the singles semi-finals of the 26th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge on Friday. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Seasoned former British No 1 Heather Watson became the only seed to survive when she eased into the singles semi-finals with a 6-1, 6-3 win against third-seeded Rebecca Sramkova at the 26th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge on Friday.

The 31-year-old Watson, who was replaced by Katie Boulter as the No 1 tennis player in Great Britain, has been in fine nick this week knocking off some top players, including Kristina Mladenovic and former world No 2 Vera Zvonareva, en route to the semi-finals.

Her opponent in the last four will be 27-year-old Dutch, Arianne Hartono, who packed off 19-year-old Ksenia Zaytseva 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the quarter-finals.

Three-set win over a friend

Anastasia Tikhonova also booked her place in the last four with a three-set win 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 win over friend, Yuliya Hatouka, while Nigina Abduraimova booked the last spot in the semi-finals with an outright 7-6 (7), 6-2 win over Isabella Shinikova.

Watson, a former junior US Open champion, had the match under total control with some swift groundstrokes as she claimed yet another famous win against Sramkova in 74 minutes. “This is certainly one of my toughest matches ever. But to my credit, I think I was relaxed and very present and focused on my game,” Watson said. “I knew I had to simply do what was in my control. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in technique or a gameplan, but just stay focused on what I can do in this moment.”

Watson was not too worried about Saturday’s semi-finals. “I feel I am playing my best tennis of my career. So, it really doesn’t matter what she [Hartono] comes up with. I will be ready for anything,” Watson added.

Mental game, the key

Watson’s semi-final opponent will be Hartono, who came through in straight sets against hard-hitting teenager Zaytseva. “I think I took my time to adjust to her game at the beginning. But once I got a hold of things, I could see myself taking over and dominating,” Hartono said. “What helps me in tough situations is the mental aspect. I am a fighter and I am on court to do exactly that. Once the match is over, it is life as usual for me. The plan for tomorrow is to go out there and give it everything against Heather.”

Tikhonova overcame early nervousness to fight in three sets against good friend Hatouka. “We’ve played together for so many years now, and we know each other’s game so well. Once the first set was done I had enough confidence to just dig in there for each and every point,” Tikhonova related.

“It’s the semi-finals tomorrow and I think I am ready to give it everything. I have played Nigina before and it will be a good match,” she added.

Unpredictable player

Abduraimova — who has World No 22 Adrian Mannarino as her coach this week — was thrilled to get past one more tough match. “She [Shinikova] can be quite an unpredictable player. I am extremely happy to advance so deep into this tournament,” said a relaxed Uzbek after her win.

“Having an experienced coach like Adrian [Mannarino] helps a lot, especially when one needs someone to speak with. And he has the experience of playing on the tour, so he understands what I go through,” she related.

Play will commence at 2pm on Saturday with the women’s singles semi-finals between Watson and Hartono followed by the second singles semi-finals between Abduraimova and Tikhonova.

Meanwhile, the top-seeded pair of Timea Babos and Vera Zvonareva booked their rightful place in the doubles final with a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 win against Prarthana G Thombare and Anastasia Tikhonova.

Netherlands' Arianne Hartono has been showcasing her fighting spirit during this edition of the Al Habtoor Challenge. Image Credit: Supplied

Nine Grand Slam titles

Winners of nine Grand Slams between themselves, Babos and Zvonareva will now await the winners of the second semi-final between second seeds Viktoria Hruncakova and Dalila Jakupovic and Olivia Nicholls and Heather Watson on Saturday.

Babos has won the 2018 and 2020 Australian Open titles as well as the French Open in 2019 and 2020, all alongside Kristina Mladenovic. Zvonareva, on the other hand, has clinched five major titles — three in the women’s doubles (the US Open in 2006 and 2020 and the 2012 Australian Open) — and another two in the mixed doubles (2004 US Open with Bob Bryan and 2006 Wimbledon with Andy Ram).

The British pairing of Olivia Nicholls and Watson also eased into the last four with a 4-6, 6-3, 10-5 win against the Thai duo of Luksika Kumkhum/Peangtarn Plipuech. They will now meet the second seeds Hruncakova and Jakupovic to decide the opponents for Sunday’s final against Babos and Zvonareva.


Singles (quarter-finals): Heather Watson bt Rebecca Sramkova 6-1, 6-3; Anastasia Tikhonova bt Yuliya Hatouka 5-7, 6-4, 7-5; Arianne Hartono bt Ksenia Zaytseva 7-6 (4), 6-3; Nigina Abduraimova bt Isabella Shinikova 7-6 (7), 6-2.

Doubles (semi-finals): Timea Babos/Vera Zvonareva bt Prarthana G Thombare/Anastasia Tikhonova 6-4, 6-2. Doubles quarter-finals: Olivia Nicholls/Heather Watson bt Luksika Kumkhum/Peangtarn Plipuech 4-6, 6-3, 10-5.