Wuhan - Wang Qiang's dream run at the Wuhan Open in China ended in heartbreak on Friday as she retired injured from her semi-final with Anett Kontaveit, while Aryna Sabalenka advanced to the final with an emphatic win over Ashleigh Barty.
Wang, China's new great tennis hope, had to stop with Estonia's Kontaveit leading 6-2, 2-1, while the hard-hitting Sabalenka beat Barty 7-6 (7/2), 6-4.
Top-ranked in China, Wang had already made history by becoming the first local player to reach the Wuhan Open quarter-finals. Her march to the last four included an upset of world number seven Karolina Pliskova.
The 34th-ranked Wang won the first two games of the match to the delight of the home fans, but the clinical Kontaveit won the next six in a row to take the first set.
Wang was moving gingerly as the first set ended, and appeared to hold back tears as the crowd cheered her every point.
With just three games played in the second set, she signalled to the umpire that she could no longer continue.
"I wanted to hold on, game after game, hoping for a miracle," Wang said. "But my body did not give me that miracle."
Her exit means the first final of 2018 for the 22-year-old Kontaveit, who will be looking to win her second WTA title.
"I'm so sorry that it had to end this way and I feel so bad for (Wang)," said the Estonian, currently 27th in the WTA rankings and aiming to finish 2018 strongly.
"From the beginning of the season, the goal has been top 20," she said.
Winning the Wuhan Open on Saturday could help achieve that, with the tournament victor receiving 900 ranking points.
Sabalenka, one of the tournament's most impressive players, stands in Kontaveit's way.
The Belarusian, ranked 20th in the world, made a shaky start in her semi-final against Australia's Barty, trailing the first set 5-3 at one stage.
But she soon found her groove and came roaring back to take the set on a tie-breaker.
Sabalenka, looking for the second WTA title of her career after clinching the Connecticut Open in August, grew even stronger in the second set as her aggressive and accurate shots often left the 17th-ranked Barty flat-footed.
She blamed nerves for her wobbly start against the in-form Barty, who had thrashed Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber on her way to the semis.
"I didn't really feel my serve and she was serving well. I actually didn't know what do on the court," said the 20-year-old Sabalenka after becoming the youngest Wuhan Open finalist.
"And then there was nothing to lose, when she was leading 5-3 (in the first set), and I started to play well."
Results of Friday's WTA Wuhan Open matches at the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre (x denotes seed):
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) bt Ashleigh Barty (AUS x16) 7-6 (7/2), 6-4
Anett Kontaveit (EST) bt Qiang Wang (CHN) 6-2, 2-1 (Wang retired injured)