ZHUHAI, October 23, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
As the WTA’s Hengqin Life Elite Trophy Zhuhai unfolds this week in China’s southern Guangdong province, with an elite field – think Kiki Bertens, Sofia Kenin, Madison Keys, Aryna Sabalenka – that would make most tournament directors green with envy, the first few days have been characterized by superb rallies, powerful hitting and great play.
The Elite Trophy field, divided into four flower-themed groups (Azalea, Camellia, 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 Chinese wild card. (This year due to injuries, it extended to include through the No. 26th-ranked player.) The 12 players are competing in a round-robin format through Friday, and the winners of each respective group will advance to the single-elimination stage of the tournament this weekend.
On Wednesday, the second-seeded Kenin beat No. 7 seed Alison Riske, 6-4, 6-4, to begin play in the Camellia Group. It was the first meeting between the two Americans, who are part of a trio of competitors from the United States (the other is Keys). The 12th-ranked Kenin, who was born in Moscow before emigrating to the U.S., never lost her serve or faced a break point during the one hour and 14 minute match. Her break of Riske in each set contributed to her victory.
“I just feel like I played really well, I served well,” the 20-year-old Kenin said, quoted by the WTA Tour website. “Ali is a tough player, she’s had a really good year, and it wasn’t easy for me to play her. We’re really good friends and she’s really nice.
“It was just a really tough match, but I just tried to put it behind me. I just feel like I knew the way she was playing.
“I practiced with her a few times, and I used what I did wrong during practice to improve during my match. I’m really happy with the performance.”
Kenin, who won three WTA Tour events this year (Hobart, Mallorca, Guangzhou), is making the most of her opportunity playing this week in Zhuhai. “Actually, in the middle of the year I didn’t even know about this tournament, so then my dad’s like, ‘Oh, you know, if you’re going to be Top 20 or something then you’ll be able to play Zhuhai.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, why did you tell me that, more pressure on me,’” she said.
“I think it’s a really good experience, I’m really happy to be here and it’s an honor. It’s a lot of top players, everyone’s really good here and everyone’s going to fight for their position.”
Elite Trophy notes
• Tenth seed Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine, who at age 19 is the youngest competitor this week in Zhuhai, saved two set points in the first set against No. 8 seed Donna Vekic from Croatia, and won 7-6 (6), 6-2. Yastremska hit 39 winners and her win sets up a first-place battle in the Azalea Group on Thursday with No. 1 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who earlier beat Vekic on Tuesday. The winner will advance from group play into the tournament semifinals.
Bertens, a past Zhuhai competitor, told the media at an All-Access Hour earlier this week: “It’s really nice to be here with all the girls and try to finish the season strong. … It’s just the last week and everyone just wants to try and finish as good.
“You for sure have two matches, which makes it fun I think also. Let’s see what everyone still can bring and hopefully we can play some good matches.”
• No. 6 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium knocked out No. 9 seed Maria Sakkari from Greece, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1. It was Sakkari’s second loss in the Rose Group. On Friday, Mertens will face her doubles partner, No. 4 seed Sabalenka of Belarus, with the winner advancing to the semifinal round. Sabalenka beat Sakkari in group play on Tuesday.
• In the Orchid and Camellia Groups, respectively, both No. 3 seed Keys, who lost Tuesday to wild card Zheng Saisai of China, and Riske need to win on Thursday to remain alive in the tournament. Keys faces No. 5 seed Petra Martic from Croatia and Riske takes on No. 11 seed Karolina Muchova of Czech Republic.
• On Tuesday, Hall of Fame great Steffi Graf, who is attending the Elite Trophy event this week in her role as tournament ambassador, told reporters she’s been impressed by Ashleigh Barty’s rise to World No. 1 since winning the Zhuhai title last year.
— WTA Elite Trophy (@WTAEliteTrophy) October 22, 2019
“Ashleigh Barty, she did so well here last year and to have seen her pull her last year and a half together the way she has has been a whole lot of fun,” Graf said of the Australian’s run the past year, which began with winning Zhuhai and included winning her first major title at Roland Garros, winning her first Premier Mandatory title at the Miami Open, and qualifying for next week’s Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Graf believes this year’s WTA season, in which the first 19 tournaments were won by 19 different players, has brought out competitive rivalries among the players. “I think the fun thing has been that it’s been keeping it interesting. A lot of players that play on the high level maybe sometimes struggle to keep it up all year long, but they’re always capable. And seeing especially the younger girls now being less afraid and going out there and going for it, I just think it’s become a lot closer, the level,” she said.
“I think that’s what makes it interesting, that you do not always know.”