SPECIAL K’S: KOVINIC, KUDERMETOVA SET CHARLESTON FINAL

SPECIAL K’S: KOVINIC, KUDERMETOVA SET CHARLESTON FINAL

MAIDEN WTA TITLE ON THE LINE AT THE VOLVO CAR OPEN

The shutdown of 2020, brought on by an unrelenting global pandemic, sent us all into a tailspin. We dealt with loss, struggled in lockdown, stockpiled toilet paper. Danka Kovinic was no exception. When Indian Wells fell off the books, the Montenegrin had played just three matches all year — each of them losses.

Amidst the uncertainty, Kovinic says she began to question her place in the sport. A decade into her professional tennis career, she had put up some notable results, the first player from her homeland, man or woman, to reach the second round of a Grand Slam. She had even cracked the Top 50. But those big-title dreams remained unfulfilled.

Then she did something remarkable. She decided to bet on herself, to start believing that she could hold her own against anyone out there, maybe even the very best. She put in the work, put in the hours on the practice court. When the tour resumed last summer, that inner-belief began to pay off. She upset 10th-ranked Swiss Belinda Bencic en route to the Round of 16 at the WTA 1000 in Rome.

Now the 26-year-old is into the biggest final of her career at the Volvo Car Open, having scored a 6-3, 6-2 victory over 12thseed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia. It marked her third straight win over a seed this week, having taken down No. 3 Petra Kvitova (6-4, 6-1) and No. 11 Yulia Putintseva in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively.

“I feel wonderful right now, even though I’m a little bit tired,” said Kovinic. “I was decisive on the court, to make this come true and give my best again today on this court. I’m really happy I’m through to the final.”

That 6-2, 6-1 loss to Jabeur on clay in Budapest in 2018? It’s long forgotten.

“I didn’t even remember what the score was,” said Kovinic. “Both of us have really developed our games through the years, especially Ons. She’s a Top-30 player. I just went out on the court to try to win, to show what I can do.”

The 28th-ranked Jabeur, who was the highest seed remaining in the draw, struggled from the get-go. Despite opening the match with a service break, she never really managed to find her rhythm, unable to unleash the spins and dropshots to which her opponents have grown so accustomed. With the first set deadlocked at 3-all, Kovinic reeled off five straight games to put herself out in front for good.

Next up for Kovinic is Veronika Kudermetova. The 15th seeded Russian advanced to Sunday’s final in impressive fashion, out-punching Spain’s Paula Badosa, 6-3, 6-3, in one-and-a-half hours. Fittingly she punctuated the win with an ace, her fifth of the afternoon and 124th of the season. She now trails only World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty (127) in that category.

Kudermetova also defeated Badosa en route to her maiden WTA final earlier this year in Abu Dhabi.

The question was how Badosa would react after registering the biggest win of her career, her straight-sets, 6-4, 6-3 upset of Barty in the quarterfinals. Would she carry that momentum into the next round, or would there be a letdown? In the end, it wasn’t so much a letdown as it was Kudermetova’s refusal to give in in their powerful baseline exchanges.

“I’m really happy to be in the final,” said Kudermetova, 23, who has yet to drop a set through five matches in Charleston. “It was a tough match. Paula was fighting until the end. I tried to play very aggressive, not give her a lot of chances, not give her time. Of course, I want to win my first title.”

These finalists have met only once before, with the Russian Kudermetova claiming a 6-4, 7-5 decision in the Round of 16 in Shenzhen two years ago.