SHENZHEN, October 31, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
As the final day of Red Group round-robin singles play unfolded at the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, with both semifinal berths still in play on Thursday, top seed Ashleigh Barty knew she could make things simple for herself by defeating No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova. If she did, it would ensure herself of a spot in the weekend’s last four. Same scenario for Belinda Bencic: win and she would advance, too.
What played out over the next few hours inside Shenzhen Tennis Centre brought out the best for one winner and mixed emotions for the other one.
First, the World No. 1 and French Open champion Barty gave a solid and gritty – if not clinical – performance and beat Kvitova for the third straight time. This time, the 23-year-old Barty garnered a 6-4, 6-2 win and grabbed first place in the Red Group. It was the Aussie’s 54th match victory of the season and, perhaps, made up for a couple of dismal losses she suffered earlier in the year to the Czech native, in the finals at Sydney and in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Since then, Barty has bested Kvitova, 29, in the quarterfinals of Miami in March and in the quarterfinals at Beijing last month. There was no bad blood after this one as the two friends shared a warm hug at the net and exchanged best wishes before going their separate ways following their one hour and 29 minute match.
— WTA (@WTA) October 31, 2019
“I felt like I executed really well tonight. Overall, I knew I had to come out here and play aggressively and play to win,” said Barty during a TV interview after her victory. “I had a really good match and I’m proud I have another chance to play on this beautiful court.”
Barty kept constant pressure on Kvitova during the Czech’s service games and broke to go ahead 3-2 in the opening set. She saved three break points in the next game to solidify her lead and was never really challenged during the rest of match. Barty’s serve was not broken and she won 80 percent (35 of 44) of her first-serve points. Also, she hit 23 winners – including six aces – and kept her unforced errors to a minimum by committing just 18. Kvitova finished with 21 winners and 31 unforced errors. Her serve was broken three times. Barty outpointed her opponent 75-62.
Later during her press conference, Barty said win or lose, she enjoys facing Kvitova. “I think playing against Petra is probably one of my favorite things to do, if I’m being honest. Win or lose, it’s going to be a great match. It’s going to be played in the right spirit. I just enjoy the challenge of playing against Petra. She really does bring out the best in me.
“It’s a challenge that I love. It’s a challenge that I thrive on. I think each time I’ve played Petra, I’ve become a better player having learned what’s happened during that match.”
Now that Barty is through to the semifinals, she awaits the winner of Friday’s match between No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 5 seed Simona Halep, which will determine second place in the Purple Group.
Bencic advances after Bertens retires
Meanwhile, with Barty’s path to the semifinals cleared, the focus switched to the final Red Group round-robin match between alternate Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands and the No. 7 seed Bencic from Switzerland. Bertens (1-0 after replacing injured Naomi Osaka) had defeated Bencic (1-1) in all of their three previous occasions: 2017 Indian Wells, 2018 Wuhan and 2019 Stuttgart. Thursday marked the first time they faced each as Top 10 players – a fitting end to the pair’s neck-and-neck race just to get to Shenzhen.
“Obviously really happy and much respect to her,” Bencic said in a recent interview posted on the WTA Tour’s website. “But, yeah, it’s in our own hands. Whoever wins this match is going to go. … I think it’s fair: who wins the match goes.”
As it happened, Bencic won by retirement. She took the first set 7-5 and was leading 1-0 in the second when Bertens, who came down with a viral illness, simply ran out of energy after 61 minutes. It should come as no surprise considering the Dutchwoman has played non-stop since the US Open – eight straight weeks across North America, Europe and Asia. She was appearing in her 81st match this season spread over 28 WTA Tour events – and was trying to become the first alternate to reach a WTA Finals semifinal round.
“I had some problems with my stomach,” said Bertens, quoted by the WTA Tour website. “The energy was not there. A little bit dizzy. Just too much to continue. … I think I gave absolutely everything this year and this week. I’m proud of that. Like five weeks ago, I said to myself, ‘You’re completely dead.’ I guess now I’m almost there.”
Trailing 4-2, Bencic found a way to be more aggressive against her opponent and it paid off. She went on to win five of the next six games by attacking Bertens and breaking her service twice to pull out the opening set. At 6-5, Bertens missed a drop shot at 30-all that set up a set point for Bencic, then hit a ball long. Midway through the set, Bencic made some critical adjustments – becoming more aggressive and minimizing her errors.
Then, after Bencic held her serve to begin the second set, Bertens called for a medical time out to have her blood pressure and pulse checked. Soon, she retired and Bencic, with her 11th win against a Top 10 opponent – best on the WTA Tour – was through to the semifinals. The Swiss No. 1 outpointed Bertens 42-36 and finished with 10 winners and 15 unforced errors. She broke her opponent’s serve twice in five tries.
After advancing, Bencic told media, “Maybe her gas just really ran out. It was a bit unfortunate. Obviously not the way I wanted to win, but super proud of how I fought in that set.
“I was thinking maybe she wins the first set, maybe different story. I think after I lost the first match here, I just wanted to keep fighting, and you never know. There’s people that made it to the semifinal when they won just one match. I was always thinking of those positives.
“I think everyone is exhausted and injured, all of that. I think now it’s all about the mental strength to go through all of this.”
By finishing second in her group, Bencic will face No. 8 seed and defending champion Elina Svitolina on Saturday in one semifinal. The Ukraine native clinched first place in the Purple Group after beating the No. 5 seed Halep on Wednesday.
Andreescu withdraws from WTA Finals
Off the court, No. 4 seed Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the WTA Finals because of an injury to her left knee she suffered during her Purple Group round-robin match against the No. 2 seed Pliskova on Wednesday.
“I had a scan Thursday to check my knee after last night’s match and unfortunately the results show that I need to withdraw,” said Andreescu. “It was amazing to play here in Shenzhen at the end of this incredible season. I’m very disappointed to not be able to finish the year on my terms, but I am hopeful I will have more chances to play here in the future.”
Andreescu’s place will be taken by alternate Sofia Kenin of the United States. Kenin will face Svitolina on Friday.
Stosur/Zhang advance in doubles draw
Australian Open champions Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai reached the doubles semifinals with a 6-3, 7-6 (7) winner-take-all victory over Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic, who were finalists last year. The No. 7 seeds Stosur, of Australia, and Zhang, from China, finished with a 2-1 record in the Purple Group. They tied with No. 2 seeds and Wimbledon champions Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic, who lost their final round-robin match against No. 4 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Xu Yifan from China, 2-6, 6-4, 11-9, after qualifying for the semifinals on Tuesday.
With three of the four semifinal pairs confirmed, Friday’s Red Group round robin play will determine who will advance. No. 1 seeds Elise Mertens from Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and No. 8 seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, both 1-1, remain alive with a chance to join No. 3 seeds and defending champions Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic from France in the last four.
By the numbers
When second alternate Sofia Kenin substitutes for No. 4 seed Bianca Andreescu against Elina Svitolina on Friday, it marks the first time in nine years that two alternates have competed at the WTA Finals. In 2009, first alternate Vera Zvonareva replaced Dinara Safina and second alternate Agnieszka Radwanska substituted for Zvonareva.
What they’re saying
Bianca Andreescu on her left knee injury: “Actually I’ve never had a during-match injury happen before, other than spraining my ankle, but that was back in 2015. Honestly, I really didn’t know what to do. I’ve fought through pain before, but this was different. It was like very acute.
“But it’s the last tournament of the year. I just told myself, Push it as much as you can. You’re going to have a good break after this. But yeah, maybe I could have pushed it more. I don’t know.
“My team said no. It was good that I stopped. Honestly, I could have kept going. If I did, then I would just be, like, whining on the court. I don’t want that. I’ve done that enough.”
Red Group / singles
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty d. No. 6 Petra Kvitova, 6-4, 6-2.
No. 7 Belinda Bencic d. Alternate Kiki Bertens, 7-5, 1-0, retired
Purple Group /doubles
No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai d. No. 6 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova, 6-3, 7-6 (7)
No. 4 Gabriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan d. No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova, 2-6, 6-4, 11-9
Purple Group / singles
Alternate Sofia Kenin vs. No. 8 Elina Svitolina, 6:30 p.m.
No. 2 Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 5 Simona Halep, not before 8 p.m.
Red Group / doubles
No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic, 4 p.m.
No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan vs. No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, not before 9:30 p.m.