DUBAI: Italian Jasmine Paolini battled back from a set and a break down in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, secure her first WTA 1000 title, and spoil qualifier Anna Kalinskaya’s fairytale week.
Kalinskaya had already written her name into the history books, beating world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals on Friday to become the first qualifier to reach the Championship match at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. And the 25-year-old looked on course to go one step further when she took the first set under the lights and broke Paolini in the first game of the second set.
Paolini, however, had been in the same position earlier in the week. In her opening match of the tournament against Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia on Sunday, she also lost the opening set and opening game of the second, before rallying back strongly to close out the win. And against Kalinskaya, she repeated the trick.
“It’s so special; I’m really happy and really surprised — I don’t know what to say,” an emotional, smiling Paolini said on court after securing the biggest win of her career.
“I’m just happy that I believed I could win every match. I remember my first match this week: It was second set, I’d lost the first and was a break down, yet now I’m here winning the title. It’s unbelievable.”
Speaking directly to the vocal fans who increasingly cheered for her throughout the match, Paolini added: “It’s great to play in front of so many people — you are crazy, guys. Thank you very much for supporting me.”
Qualifier Kalinskaya had produced some of the biggest shocks of the week as the world No.40 overcame 2022 winner Jelena Ostapenko in the Round of 16, edged world No.3 Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals and beat four-time Grand Slam winner Swiatek in straight sets. And as a capacity crowd filed into their seats to watch two players contesting their first WTA 1000 final, it was Kalinskaya — making her Main Draw debut in Dubai this week after coming through two rounds of qualifying — who settled first, breaking a nervous Paolini in the first game.
The Italian, ranked No.26 in the world, gradually grew into the match, breaking back in the fourth to take the set to 2-2 before the pair, who met last month at the Australian Open with Kalinskaya coming out on top, exchanged successive breaks. In the ninth game, Kalinskaya broke serve once more to take a 5-4 lead and after serving her first ace of the match — a 172 kph thunderbolt — she served out for the first set.
The second set started similar to the first, with Kalinskaya breaking in the first game with a thunderous winner. Yet once more she let her lead slip, this time in the sixth. And with the crowd baying for a third set, Paolini found herself in the ascendancy, pulling her opponent around the court, forcing errors, and eventually breaking in the 12th to take the set 7-5.
Kalinskaya took the lead once more in the third set, but again failed to pull away, seeing her own service game broken immediately by a fired up Paolini. Undeterred, the qualifier broke again to take the outright lead and this time held it for much of the deciding set. Yet, serving for the championship, Kalinskaya’s game evaporated as she double-faulted, started overcooking forehands, and found the net with an unnecessary drop shot that allowed Paolini to stay in the match with a crucial break.
After serving for the match, Kalinskaya found herself needing to break her opponent, but Paolini was unaccommodating, showing ferocity to close out the match and take her first title since October and first above WTA 250 level. The win is expected to project her into the top 15 when the WTA’s latest rankings are released next week.
“I have to say at the end of the match maybe she missed some balls that she never missed all the match,” Paolini said. “It’s tough; tennis is tough mentally. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I’m happy that this time I was able to win.”
Kalinskaya, who conceded Paolini “totally deserved it and (fought) for every ball,” told the fans during the prize cermony: “I’ve never played so much tennis in one week, but it was a pleasure playing in front of you. You make it very special and give a lot of energy and support, so hopefully see you all next year.”
Meanwhile, the doubles final saw No.4 seeded Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova triumph over No.3 seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-2. Attention now turns to the ATP 500 men’s tournament, which starts on Monday and features six of the world’s top 20, including three previous winners in Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Andy Murray.