Paolini gains revenge on Kalinskaya by winning Dubai Tennis Championships title

Italian enters the top 20 for the first time after fighting back to win Saturday's final 4-6, 7-5, 7-5

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The last time Jasmine Paolini faced Anna Kalinskaya, it started a run of three straight defeats. It was only last month, in the Australian Open fourth round, and was followed by successive first-round losses in Linz and Doha.

So, when she arrived in the UAE this week for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and was drawn against 11th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, few would have expected Paolini to make much of an impact. However, six days later it was the Italian raising the famous coffee pot trophy aloft and celebrating the second, and undoubtedly the biggest, title of her career.

That she beat Kalinskaya 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in Saturday's final, having stared squarely at defeat, was purely incidental.

Paolini, the third Italian woman to win a Masters 1000 title, will now enter the WTA's top 20 for the first time in her career, at a projected 14th, when the new rankings are released on Monday.

"Honestly, I don't know how I managed to win the match because she was playing too good at the beginning," Paolini, 28, said. "I tried to play more on the backhand, tried to push more, to also be more relaxed, to try to take the ball earlier because if not, she was moving me around so much. I was running a lot. But the key was to believe that even if I was down, I could turn the match [around]."

Indeed, it was an outcome that seemed unlikely midway through the match when Kalinskaya led by a set and 3-1 in the second. Yet, in a final packed with tension and drama, Paolini managed to hold her nerve slightly better than her opponent to ultimately emerge victorious.

The tension was evident from the outset as both players struggled to convince on serve. Kalinskaya took the initial advantage with an immediate break for 2-0, but Paolini was soon back in the contest at 2-2. Another exchange of breaks occurred to keep the score level at 3-3, and from there Kalinskaya was the more settled player, earning her third and decisive break for 5-4 before closing out the set.

The Russian world No 40, who came through qualifying, looked to be motoring towards the title when she broke early in the second set and held a 3-1 lead, displaying the sort of tennis that guided her to wins over US Open champion Coco Gauff and world No 1 Iga Swiatek in the previous rounds.

Yet as the pressure increased, Paolini dug in, getting the set back on serve at 3-3, and with Kalinskaya later serving to stay in the set at 5-6, the Italian pounced again to take the final into a decider.

Once again, Kalinskaya broke immediately to take early control as Paolini's serving struggles returned, and it was the Russian who was always out in front, up until she was serving for the title at 5-4. Then, it was all about holding her nerve and getting over the line – easier said than done when contesting the biggest final of your life.

As Kalinskaya wobbled, Paolini gladly took the lifeline and seized the momentum, winning the final four games, including breaking the Russian to love as she served to stay in the match, to clinch the title.

"I'm proud of all the work I made this year. It's not easy to bring this work to the match sometimes," Paolini said. "I'm playing good tennis, I played well at the end of the last season, and I started well this season [reaching the] second week at the Australian Open.

"I try to be more relaxed on court, try to think more about what I have to do, to be more present in every point, and I think it's working. It's not going to be like this every week, of course, but I'm trying to do my best. I'm proud of this."

For Kalinskaya, it was a heartbreaking end to what had otherwise been a fantastic week as she continues her breakout season. After making it through qualifying, the 25-year-old defeated the in-form Jelena Ostapenko – champion here in 2022 – before career-best victories over third seed Gauff and top seed Swiatek.

While denied her first WTA Tour singles title, the Russian's consolation will be a further rise up the rankings to a career-high No 24.

Updated: February 24, 2024, 7:02 PM