Sochi, Russia, September 11, 2015 – Riikka Lehtonen and Taru Lahti crushed all hopes for a Russian medal at the FIVB World Tour Sochi Open on Friday. The Finnish girls knocked out both top seeded Evgenia Ukolova and Ekaterina Birlova (16-21, 21-15, 15-13) and youngsters Ekaterina Syrtseva and Yulia Abalakina (21-18, 21-18) to reach their first ever semifinal.
The 2-1 against Ukolova and Birlova was a big win, because they are considered a top team, Lehtonen said. But the match against Syrtseva and Abalakina was more special, because it was ‘sweet revenge’.
“It was an emotional match”, Lehtonen said. “Because we lost to them for top position in the pool and this was revenge.” Before they met up with the two Russian teams the Finnish team also defeated Italy’s Laura Giombini and Giulia Toti (21-8, 21-18).
Syrtseva and Abalakina could have easily won the first set against the Finnish easily leading 15-8, but seemed to get nervous towards the end. The Finnish girls levelled at 18-18 to take the set at 21-18.
“They had a nice serve and we had difficulties with our reception”, Lehtonen said. “Normally reception is not such a problem for us, so they did a good one on that. And they played well, in front of their home crowd and it was absolutely not easy.”
“And even after we won the first set, they didn’t give away the second. We needed to fight for it from the first till the last ball.” It resulted in great rallies with the Russians coming back at 14-14, 17-17 and 18-18. But again Finland proved to have the strongest nerves and Lehtonen finished the game at their first match point.
Lehtonen and Lahti say they had an up and down season, with fifth place in Prague this year being their best career result. “We are very happy with this semi but now we want to go till the end”, Lahti said.
Lehtonen: “Like every team we want to be at the top week after week, but no one can do that and you need to learn about the mistakes and difficult moments and I think that is what we are slowly, slowly doing. Because this is the first season we are doing so many tournaments in a row. We are still learning a lot, what to do in between, how to recover. But if you look at the results it’s been great, but it’s not enough.”
In the semifinal on Saturday the Finnish girls will play Swiss team Isabelle Forrer and Anouk Vergé-Dépré, who also reached their first final four. They eliminated Russia’s Olga Motrich and Nadezda Makroguzova (21-11, 21-19) and Czech team Marketa Slukova and Barbora Hermannova (21-11, 17-21, 15-12) on Friday.
Switzerland vs Italy
Switzerland supplied another team for the semifinals. Nadine Zumkehr and Joana Heidrich also reached the final four for the first time. The fifth seeded Swiss play a strong tournament and reached the semis with five straight wins. On Friday they defeated Kazachstan’s Tatyana Mashkova and Irina Tsimbalova (21-12, 21-15) and China’s fourth seeded Wang Fan and Yue Yuan (21-14 22-20).
The only time they were really pushed was in the second set against the Chinese. The Swiss were trailing in the beginning of the set, but levelled at 12-12. Then it was point-by-point until the Chinese leapt away to 17-20. But Zumkehr and Heidrich stayed calm and turned the match around with a strong serving series by Heidrich, which took them all the way to 22-20.
“We knew the Chinese are a very strong team”, Zumkehr said. “They have several semifinal appearances every year. So far we haven’t been able to win against them this year, not even win a set. But we knew we could do it, and it’s really nice that it happened here on our way to the semifinal.”
“I think we played very good in the first set, very stable and all the passing and setting was good. We served well. In the second they put more pressure on us, and it was back and forth. I think Joana did a great job with her serve, staying calm and going for really good serves.”
Zumkehr and Heidrich meet up with Marta Menegatti and Viky Orsi Toth in the semifinal. The second seeded Italian pool winners reached the final four with wins over China’s Yuanyuan Ma and Xinyi Xia (21-18, 21-9) and USA’s Summer Ross and Lane Carico (14-21, 21-16, 15-10).
The Italians are the only team in the Sochi final four that have made it to a World Tour semi before. They ended up with silver at the Sao Paolo Grand Slam in 2014, bronze at the Moscow Grand Slam in 2015 and fourth place at the 2013 Moscow Grand Slam, the 2013 Sao Paolo Grand Slam and the 2014 Klagenfurt Grand Slam.