SHENZHEN, November 2, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
This week’s season-ending Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen have been plagued by a series of injuries and illnesses that have resulted in some unfortunate retirements. Through it all, defending champion Elina Svitolina has steered clear of the pain and suffering that has befallen many of the competitors who have descended upon Shenzhen Bay Tennis Centre in this southeastern China city.
After her victory over Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who was forced to retire due to cramping in the deciding set Saturday evening, Svitolina remains healthy and focused – and eligible for a record $4.725 million in prize money that will go to the champion.
The No. 8 seed from Ukraine, who advanced with a 5-7, 6-3, 4-1 win when Bencic retired after one hour and 49 minutes, will face World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty in the Sunday final. The Aussie reached her first WTA Finals title match after coming back to beat No. 2 Karolina Pliskova from the Czech Republic, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
Afterward, Svitolina admitted during her media session: “It’s tough to play someone who has been injured, been injured on the court. It was tough for her.
“It’s still kind of not realizing that I’m in the final. It’s the very, very last match of the season.
“Definitely tomorrow, I’m going to leave everything on the court and fight just to try to get another trophy here.”
After breaking Svitolina to lead 4-2 at the start of the match, Bencic required a medical timeout five games later, after going ahead 6-5. The Swiss No. 1 received treatment on her right hamstring before returning to the court.
“I started cramping in my foot and again in my hamstring,” Bencic said after the match.
“I really didn’t want to retire. I tried. Sometimes, I just tried to make a good serve, play no rallies. It just wasn’t enough.”
To her credit, Bencic returned from the first-set medical time out and survived a tremendous 16-shot rally on set point to win the opener 7-5. However, it didn’t get any easier from that point on.
After Svitolina immediately broke Bencic to begin the second set, she never trailed the rest of the match.
“To stay into the match, it was tough. When someone injured, (she) tries to go for more,” said Svitolina, who fired 16 aces and hit 37 winners against 20 unforced errors. “Actually, she was hitting the ball very good. … I had to try to move her.
“This was not easy because it’s tough to find a balance when you have to really hit the ball, then when you have to try to direct the ball well.
“She was going for it. Sometimes, of course, she was missing a lot. Sometimes she was hitting amazing shots. That’s the challenge, what you have to be aware of.”
Bencic hit 29 winners but committed 29 unforced errors. She converted just two of her seven break-point chances against Svitolina. “I wanted to finish the match. It was not possible. I’m really disappointed about how my body failed me,” she said.
“It doesn’t feel good that I just couldn’t do more, but obviously credit to Elina. She made the rallies long. She did the right things. Obviously, she has a great advantage on these kind of courts, playing great at the WTA Finals.”
Svitolina, who rode a nine-match winning streak at the WTA Finals into the semifinal round after advancing through her three group play matches without dropping a set, gave a resilient effort throughout. Across the net, Bencic was appearing in her first WTA Finals after stringing together back-to-back wins Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens that followed a loss to Barty in her group opener.
“It doesn’t matter who I’m going to play, Ashleigh or Karolina, No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, so you have to be ready, you have to fight,” said Svitolina, who will be vying for her first WTA Tour title of the season on Sunday. “I have an important match tomorrow to win. For me, I try to take one match at a time. You don’t have to think so much ahead, so much what’s going on.”
Barty Party continues with big win
Meanwhile, coming into their semifinal showdown, Barty and Pliskova – the two top-ranked players and top seeds in the WTA Finals – had alternated wins during their five previous meetings, with Barty leading the career head-to-head 3-2. In the only other meeting this year, Barty beat Pliskova in the Miami Open final, 7-6 (1), 6-3.
“Of course, she’s World No.1, it’s going to be extremely difficult,” said Pliskova about Barty, following her three-set win over Simona Halep on Friday. “She’s also great on this surface. It suits her well. We did practice last week. It’s not impossible. Of course, my goal now is to go little bit more than last two years.”
As it happened, Barty saved 11 of 12 break points against Pliskova during their one hour and 53 minute thriller to reach her WTA Tour-leading sixth final of 2019. After losing a close opening set, Barty took time to reset and figured out Pliskova. She recovered nicely and triumphed in three sets – winning on her third match-point opportunity – to book a spot in her first WTA Finals. As for Pliskova, it was her third straight WTA Finals semifinal defeat after losing to Caroline Wozniacki in 2017 and to Sloane Stephens last year.
Barty hit 36 winners – including 11 aces – while Pliskova managed just one ace and finished with 23 winners and 30 unforced errors. She outpointed Pliskova 94-81 by winning 13 more points on her service game.
— WTA (@WTA) November 2, 2019
Sporting a big grin during her on-court interview, Barty was asked to sum up her feelings about playing Svitolina, whom she is 0-5 in their previous head-to-head clashes. Without hesitation, she said, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I get to come out and enjoy and try to end my regular season really well. It’s an opportunity against an extremely tough player who obviously knows how to win. I’m actually looking forward to it and can’t wait to get back out here.”
No. 1 doubles seeds come from behind
No.1 doubles seeds and defending champions Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic from France came from behind twice to edge No. 7 seeds Samantha Stosur from Australia and Zhang Shuai of China, 1-6, 6-4, 10-8, to reach Sunday’s final. After dropping the first set, the French Open champions Babos and Mladenovic rebounded from down 0-2 to win the second set. Then, in the match tie break, they turned around a 3-7 deficit to win. It extends their WTA Finals winning streak to seven.
Babos and Mladenovic will oppose No. 2 seeds Hsieh Su-wei from Taiwan and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. The Wimbledon champions beat No. 8 seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-2.
With her win, Strycova secured the year-end doubles No. 1 ranking.
By the numbers
• Saturday’s semifinal between Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova marked the first World No. 1 versus World No. 2 meeting since the 2018 Australian Open, when World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki defeated World No. 1 Simona Halep, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4, and it was the first at the WTA Finals since the 2012 semifinal when World No. 2 Maria Sharapova beat World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, 6-4, 6-2.
• Elina Svitolina is attempting to be the first defending WTA Finals champion to reach the final the following year – and to successfully defend the title – since Serena Williams’ three-year run of WTA Finals titles from 2012-14.
• On Sunday, Ashleigh Barty will try to become the second Australian champion at the WTA Finals following 1974 and 1976 winner Evonne Goolagong Cawley. The last time either a World No. 1 or reigning Grand Slam champion took the title was in 2014 by Serena Williams.
What they’re saying
World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty on the biggest prize-money check in the history of professional tennis – men’s or women’s – that is at stake during Championship Sunday at the Shiseido WTA Finals: “We’ve come from nothing and now we’re in this position where we’re breaking records. … I think we have the most beautiful sport, it’s a global sport. Now we’re getting more attention. I feel like we’ve earned that.”
No. 8 Elina Svitolina d. No. 7 Belinda Bencic, 5-7, 6-3, 4-1, retired
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty d. No. 2 Karolina Pliskova 4-6, 6-2, 6-3
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic d. No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai, 1-6, 6-4, 10-8
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova d. Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, 6-1, 6-2
Doubles final, 4:30 p.m.
Singles final, 7:30 p.m.