By Nick McCarvel
The final four women remaining at the Western & Southern Open know what it means to play for the biggest titles in the world.
All four of them are Grand Slam finalists. Two of them – world No.1 Iga Swiatek and No.2 Aryna Sabalenka – are major champions, and this marks the first time since 2017 that the world’s top two have advanced to the semifinals here.
The last time Cincy had a No. 1 vs. 2 final? A decade ago, when second-ranked Victoria Azarenka upset No.1 Serena Williams in a dramatic, enthralling three-set finale.
Saturday Swiatek and Sabalenka will look to set up their ninth career clash, and third of the 2023 season, having split the previous two in Stuttgart (Swiatek) and Madrid (Sabalenka).
Overall, Swiatek leads 5-3 in their head-to-head.
But not too fast.
Standing in the top two seed’s way on Saturday are two former French Open runners-up who were each stopped short by Swiatek in Paris in the two previous years.
American teen Coco Gauff will try once again to topple the world No.1 – something she’s not done in seven previous tries – while Sabalenka meets the crafty Czech Karolina Muchova, runner-up at Roland-Garros in June.
And also, regardless of Saturday’s outcomes, Cincinnati will have a first-time women’s champion here for a third consecutive year.
“I don’t have a good track record against her, [but] I do feel a lot more confident going into it tomorrow,” an honest Gauff said of her Swiatek clash after a straight-set win over Jasmine Paolini on Friday.
Gauff has re-tooled her game after a first-round loss at Wimbledon last month. She’s added longtime coach and analyst Brad Gilbert to her coaching team, which also includes Jarmere Jenkins and Pere Riba.
Swiatek is aware of Gauff’s movements, especially with the American winning in Washington, DC, two weeks ago.
“We’ve played plenty of times,” Swiatek said, having never dropped a set (in 14 played) against the teen. “You never know what she’s going to come up with. I’ll be ready [to] focus on myself.”
While Gauff and Swiatek promises to be a mix of power, athleticism and first-strike tennis, it will be a clash of styles for the big-hitting Sabalenka and all-court Muchova, who has long been a threatening presence on the WTA but has just one previous title to her name (Seoul 2019).
It’s a rematch of their dramatic roller coaster in the French Open semifinal in June, which Sabalenka led by 5-2 in the third set only to go down 7-5 after dropping the final five games.
This week, Muchova earned her 10th career top 10 win, against Maria Sakkari in the third round. She’s 5-7 against the top 5 in her career, a stunning stat for a player who currently sits just off her career high of No.16 at 17th in the world.
Muchova plays with a sort of craft and guile that can prove confounding, especially for a power hitter like Sabalenka.
“I’m really looking forward for this match,” Sabalenka said after a win over Ons Jabeur on Friday night. “I’m going to take this win back. I mean, at least I’ll do everything I can, everything that is in my hands to get this win back.”