Competitive Instinct Pushes Bertens To WTA Elite Trophy Final

Kiki Bertens (photo: WTA Elite Trophy)

ZHUHAI, October 26, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

As the semifinal round of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai unfolded on Saturday afternoon in Zhuhai, China, top seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who won her only meeting with 40th-ranked Chinese favorite Zheng Saisai – in the first round of the 2016 Miami Open in straight sets – faced off, again, this time for a berth in Sunday’s championship final.

Sometimes, prior history makes a difference in a head-to-head meeting, no matter if it’s just one long-ago match. Sometimes, it’s instinct that just take over and pushes one to the finish line.

The World No. 10 Bertens, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen and will be the first alternate, battled hard to defeat Zheng, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours and 30 minutes to advance to her fifth final of 2019. While Bertens may be mentally and physically fatigued, thanks to playing nearly every week on tour since the US Open, her competitive instinct took over against Zheng. The bespectacled Zheng is the second straight Chinese player to reach the Zhuhai semifinals following Wang Qiang, who lost in last year’s final to Ashleigh Barty.

Down a set and break at 2-6, 1-2, Bertens won nine of the next 11 games to not only to tie the match at one set each, but also built a 4-1 lead in the deciding set. Then, at 5-4 with match point on her racquet, Bertens booked her spot in the final when Zheng netted a forehand return at the conclusion of a grueling 14-shot rally. Bertens outpointed Zheng 88-87 and remained undefeated in three matches this week at Zhuhai.

“I knew I had to do something else, because Saisai was putting so much balls back on the court and I just had not the energy to play those long rallies,” said Bertens, quoted by the WTA Tour website.

“I was just mixing it up, trying to do some serve and volley, which was working pretty well. I was surprised with that. So I just kept on going for it.

“She gave me some mistakes also, so then I start believing that I could still turn this match around.”

In Sunday’s final, Bertens will face No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who defeated 11th seed Karolina Muchova from the Czech Republic, 7-5, 7-6 (3). The victory advanced the 14th-ranked Sabalenka to her fourth final of the season and the ninth final of her career overall.

Despite losing her serve in the opening game of each set, Sabalenka fought back in her first career head-to-head with the 26th-ranked Muchova to win in one hour and 52 minutes. Both reached the semifinal round after finishing 2-0 in their respective round-robin groups.

Sabalenka’s victory improved her career record in tour-level matches played in China to 32-7. She’s won three of her four WTA singles titles on Chinese soil and has reached the quarterfinals or better in eight of her 10 tour-level tournaments in China.

“I think China loves me and I love it, too,” Sabalenka said after semifinal victory against Muchova. “So, the results here are really good and unbelievable. I’ll just try to keep being here.

“After the experience I had this year, I’m not focusing on the ranking any more, I’m focusing on my game and just to put everything on the court every time I’m playing. So, that’s where my focus is right now.”

Going into Sunday’s final, Bertens will carrying a 4-1 head-to-head advantage against Sabalenka. The Dutchwoman won the first four meetings, including at St. Petersburg and Eastbourne earlier this season. Sabalenka won their most recent battle at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open last month in straight sets.

“(I played) Aryna already a few times this year, but it’s a final, so whoever is the best can win,” said Bertens. “Before the match, it’s just really like getting all the energy together and just trying to give it all, and that’s what I’ve been doing all week.

“I think every day I’m surprising myself what’s still in me, still the fighting spirit. I only can hope that I can have it one more time tomorrow.

“We’ll prepare as good as we can for tomorrow and hopefully I’ll have one more final push and just give all the energy that’s left in me.”

And what does Sabalenka think of playing Bertens again? “Every time we play against each other it’s like a big battle. So, I’m just looking forward to it and really can’t wait to go on the court and play.”

Around the Elite Trophy

• Top seeds Duan Yingying and Yang Zhaoxuan, both from China, reached Sunday’s doubles final with a 6-1, 1-6, 10-7 win over No. 3 seeds Darija Jurak of Croatia and Alicja Rosolska of Poland. Duan won the 2017 Zhuhai doubles alongside compatriot Han Xinyun.

Advancing from the first semifinal was the second-seeded team of Lyudmyla Kichenok of Ukraine and Andreja Klepac of Slovenia, who beat No. 5 seeds Jiang Xinyu and Tang Qianhu, both from China, 2-6, 6-4, 10-6.

• Sunday’s singles final between Kiki Bertens and Aryna Sabalenka is scheduled for 1 p.m. local time. The doubles final will follow the singles award ceremony, not before 3:30 p.m. local time.