An Elite WTA Field Competing For An Elite End-Of-Season Trophy

Daria Kasatkina (photo: WTA Elite Trophy)

ZHUHAI, October 31, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

As the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai unfolds in the this modern city in China’s southern Guangdong province, an elite field that would make any tournament director envious has assembled for this week-long event, which wraps up the 2018 WTA Tour season.

After the first two days, the enthusiastic crowds in Zhuhai have been treated to many superb rallies, some powerful hitting and, overall, plenty of great play.

The WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai field, divided into four groups (Azalea, Camelia, Orchid and Rose) of three players each, is comprised of players who are ranked from No. 9 to No. 20 in the world by points, along with one wild card. They are competing in a round-robin format, and the winners of each respective group will advance to the single-elimination stage of the tournament this weekend.

Top seed Daria Kasatkina of Russia, who earlier this month won the VTB Kremlin Cup in Moscow for her second career WTA Tour title and was an alternate at last week’s WTA Finals in Singapore, kicked off her run at Zhuhai against No. 11 seed Wang Qiang of China with a 6-1, 2-6, 7-5 victory on Tuesday in the Azalea Group. However, she was unable to sustain her winning momentum and lost to sixth-seeded Madison Keys of the U.S., 6-2, 6-4 on Wednesday afternoon. The American has now won all four of their career head-to-head meetings.

“Overall, I think I played really solid and went out and did what I needed to do,” said Keys, as quoted by the WTA Tour website, after her win against Kasatkina, which moved her to the top of the Azalea Group standings with one match remaining against Wang.

During her post-match press conference, Kasatkina, whose advancement out of group play is in doubt, reflected on her year. “2018 is the best season of my career so far, so of course I’m happy,” she said. “There was a lot of ups and downs, but at the end, I spoke with my coach and my team, and it was a really good season. They say they are proud of me. I’m proud of them because they’re so patient about me.”

Meanwhile, Elise Mertens of Belgium, who leads the Zhuhai field with three WTA titles this season (lifting trophies at Hobart, Lugano and Rabat), opened with a solid 6-3, 6-1 win over 10th-seeded Anett Kontaveit of Estonia on Tuesday that placed her on top in the Rose Group. She faces No. 5 Julia Goerges of Germany on Thursday.

“I’m very thankful that 2018 is better than 2017,” said the fourth-seeded Mertens, who will be the first Belgian to finish the season in the WTA Top 20 since Kirsten Flipkens in 2013. “The belief in myself keeps me reaching this level. I’m consistent and that is the key for me this year.”

Finally, in a year that’s been marred by injury, former World No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza, who will finish 2018 ranked outside the Top 10, isn’t too disappointed with her year overall despite failing to make it past the second round at three of this year’s four Grand Slams.

“I knew at some point that some ups and downs were going to come, especially with the body, or just it’s very difficult to keep for a lot of years the same high level,” the 17th-ranked Muguruza told the media before the start of the tournament. “It’s kind of tricky for everybody.”

The seventh-seeded Muguruza won her opening match in the Camellia Group with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over 12th-seeded wild card Zhang Shuai of China on Wednesday evening. The 25-year-old Spaniard, who is a two-time Grand Slam champion, remains upbeat at the end of a long season.

“I’m just trying to keep the enthusiasm. I feel I’m a very competitive person, so even though there is tough moments or you feel injured sometimes, I know that the hard work will pay eventually.”

Muguruza, who is playing at Zhuhai for the first time, will face seventh-seeded Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia on Friday with a semifinal berth on the line. She expressed a feeling that seems universal among most if not all of the players assembled at Zhuhai, saying: “I think there are plenty of reasons to be happy to be playing here and hopefully get a good win and finish the year with a good taste.”

WTA Elite Trophy notes

• At age 20, third-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is the youngest singles player in this year’s field. She’s also the youngest competitor in the tournament’s four-year history. Sabalenka has 21 three-set main draw match wins this season, which is more than anyone else on the WTA Tour. On Tuesday, Sabalenka garnered her 46th overall win with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over ninth-seeded Ash Barty of Australia in the Orchid Group.

“I had a little bit rest (since Tianjin) and then it was practicing for two weeks to be ready for this tournament. I was missing to play tennis, like matches. I’m so happy with this start with a win,” said Barty.

Disappointed not to come away with a win, but I have another opportunity in the next few days to finish my season on a real high.”

• On Wednesday, No. 10 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia beat 2017 WTA Elite Trophy champion Julia Goerges of Germany, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, after losing her first match against fourth-seeded Elise Mertens in the Rose Group. “I played a great set in the first; I started well and I was playing quite consistent,” said Kontaveit after her win against Goerges. “It was definitely a big improvement from yesterday. It was a very close match. I think in the third set I was just trying to stay tough. It was close all along. In the end, it was about holding the serve and being consistent on the serve. I think I managed to do that well in the third.”

• This week, 11th-seed Wang Qiang of China is playing in her sixth event on Chinese soil in 2018. Earlier this year, she won titles at Nanchang and Guangzhou and was a semifinalist at Wuhan and Beijing. Although Wang lost her opener against No. 1 seed Daria Kasatkina, the Russian praised her Chinese opponent. “For sure, (Wang) improved her game so much and always we have big, big matches. We never have, like, the easy one. We played another big match, so it’s more and more difficult to play against her.”