Halep Digs Deep, Overcomes Andreescu In Battle Of Grand Slam Champions

SHENZHEN, October 28, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

When 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu and former World No. 1 Simona Halep walked on Centre Court for their Purple Group singles match in the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, Monday night, they were linked not only their Grand Slam triumphs – Andreescu captured her first major last month at the US Open while Halep won Wimbledon in July and the French Open in 2018 – but also by their Romanian heritage. Bianca’s parents emigrated to Canada from Romania (Andreescu was born in Canada but spent part of her childhood in Romania) while Halep is a national hero back home in her native Constanta, Romania.

“Me and Simona, I’ve always wanted to play her. I’m finally getting my chance. I’m really excited,” said Andreescu, ranked World No. 4, before facing Halep at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre in her WTA Finals debut.

As it happened, over the course of their two hour and 34 minute round-robin match, Halep beat Andreescu, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3. The 28-year-old Romanian gave an incredible mental and physical performance in which she came back from saving match point at 5-6 in the second set and also rebounded from a break down in the third to earn the victory. Andreescu’s forced backhand error enabled Halep to hold serve and force a second-set tie break, which she won 8-6 after holding leads of 3-0 and 6-4.

With her gritty and relentless win secured, Halep pounded her heart as she looked at her coach, Darren Cahill, and the rest of her team in her box. Then, as she came off court, Halep blew a kiss toward the TV camera that was focused on her.

“I’m really proud of my team and of myself,” Halep, a six-time qualifier for the WTA Finals, said during a TV interview. Cahill made four on-court visits to offer tactical advice and to keep Halep focused and thinking positive. “It was a really tough match. (Bianca’s) a great player and she’s playing at the end without giving up. I’m happy that I could win.”

Halep overcame 31 unforced errors to hit 23 winners and broke Andreescu’s serve six times in eight tries, none bigger than when she out-hit her opponent in one of the longest rallies of the match to break for a 5-3 advantage in the decisive set. In a match filled with momentum swings, it swung toward Halep at the end. She served out the match at love and now will get a day off before resuming group play on Wednesday. This was her first action since losing in the second round at Beijing late last month.

Halep loves playing under pressure

“Every match I have pressure, and I love playing under pressure,” said Halep, who won five of the last six games against Andreescu. “But I have to turn it in a positive way. Today I did it. I happy I could fight, actually, with a girl who is 10 years younger than me and just won the US Open. She’s done an unbelievable job this year. I’m really proud of myself tonight.”

Later, during her press conference, Halep said: “I’m really proud actually that I could fight in this way because I have a month that I didn’t really practice with my back, with the injury. But looks like I’m still there.”

Andreescu, who finished with 36 winners but committed 38 unforced errors, was able to convert only seven of her 15 break-point opportunities against Halep. She outpointed her opponent 101-99, but it wasn’t quite enough.

During an All-Access Hour with tournament media on the eve of her Shenzhen debut, Andreescu expressed her enthusiasm with not only playing in the WTA Finals for the first time, but also playing against one of her idols. “It’s like you’re playing the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam right away,” she said. “But I got some good practice in. I have some pretty good wins up my sleeve. I think I have some pretty good momentum coming into this tournament.”

After the match, Andreescu told media: “I think I was executing the right tactics. My serve. My return was good today, for most of the match at least. I didn’t feel intimidated at all stepping on the court.

“I know I looked up to her a lot, so being able to play her was really fun. Yeah, maybe I’ll get to play her again here, get my revenge.

“It was a good match. She fought really hard. I didn’t take my chances in the second set, so I’m really disappointed about that.”

Svitolina extends WTA Finals winning streak

Meanwhile, defending champion Elina Svitolina, seeded eighth at this year’s WTA Finals, renewed her rivalry with No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova and for the second straight year, they are battling in the same group. In last year’s WTA Finals, during their most recent head-to-head, Svitolina won their round-robin match in three sets en route to lifting the trophy. It was the Ukranian’s third straight win over Pliskova, who won their first five meetings. On Monday, Svitolina made it four consecutive wins over the Czech, 7-6 (12), 6-4, in one hour and 53 minutes, despite Pliskova saving six set points in the opening set before hitting a lunging backhand wide on set point No. 7.

“It was one of the longest tie-breaks I’ve ever played,” said Svitolina on court after her win against Pliskova, which was her first Top 5 victory of the season and seventh straight triumph at the WTA Finals going back to 2018. “But in the end, I was playing one point at a time. I didn’t even think about winning the tie-break. I was trying to focus on my tennis. In the end, I won it.”

Svitolina hit 21 winners and 16 unforced errors, while Pliskova finished with 37 winners, including seven service aces, but committed 42 unforced errors. There was little margin for error.

“I was just trying to be ready for her big serve and to take on the second serve, to move quickly and react,” said Svitolina, who outpointed Pliskova 86-82. “I just focused on what I had to do and in the end I got a win.”

Later, during her post-match press conference, Svitolina was asked to describe the feeling of playing a 26-point tie break that seemed to last as long as running a marathon. She said: “You tell yourself to stay in the moment. You just try to play one rally at a time, to don’t rush. Even when I had the chances to finish the set, because there was few, I thought I could play better.

“You just have to quickly restart and just try to take one point at a time, don’t rush and don’t get down on yourself. … I always know when I am tough mentally, I get another chance.”

Indeed, Svitolina will get another chance to show her mental toughness as she goes for her eighth straight WTA Finals victory on Wednesday against Halep in a Purple Group encounter featuring first-match winners.

Around the doubles draw

• No. 3 seeds and defending champions Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic edged No. 5 seeds Latisha Chan and Chan Hao-Ching, 6-2 5-7 10-6, in their opening Red Group round-robin match.

• In another Red Group match, one that didn’t take court until 11:48 p.m. and lasted for an hour and 27 minutes, No. 8 seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Demi Schuurs upset No. 1 seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka, 7-5, 1-6, 10-7.

Future stars shine

Two American juniors were crowned winners of the WTA Future Stars tournament in Shenzhen on Sunday afternoon. Clervie Ngounoue, 13, lifted the trophy in the Under-14 competition while 15-year-old Reese Brantmeier triumphed in the Under-16s.

Ngounoue, a native of Washington, D.C. who trains at the Mouratoglou Academy in France, defeated Kayla Cross of Canada, 6-2, 7-6 (2), while Brantmeier, from Wisconsin, beat Annabelle Xu of Canada, 6-3, 6-4.

By the numbers

• Bianca Andreescu, playing in her first WTA Finals, is bidding for her ninth Top 10 win in 10 such matches this year. At age 19, she’s also the youngest qualifier for this year’s WTA Finals and the first teenager since Caroline Wozniacki accomplished the feat in 2009 at the same age. Andreescu is also the fourth Canadian to compete at the WTA Finals, following Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1984-85, Helen Kelesi in 1988-89, and Eugenie Bouchard in 2014.

• Elina Svitolina is attempting to be the first player to successfully defend a WTA Finals title since Serena Williams won three consecutive titles from 2012-14.

• Only four players have won the WTA Finals in their debut – Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Dominika Cibulkova.

• Tuesday’s featured Red Group singles match pits World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty against World No. 3 Naomi Osaka, who both won their opening matches on Sunday. In her previous two hard court main draw matches, Osaka has won both times. The Japanese star beat Barty 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the Beijing final earlier this month, and also won during the 2018 Australian Open.

What they’re saying

Bianca Andreescu on her confidence to succeed, as told to Reem Abulleil of thenational.ae: “I really think I was born to play this sport. Like even at the beginning of the year when I had all of those wins, I was surprised of course, but at the same time I really thought that my daw was going to come one day, and I think that’s coming from me just believing in myself.”

Monday’s results

Purple Group / singles
No. 8 Elina Svitolina d. No. 2 Karolina Pliskova, 7-6 (12), 6-4
No. 5 Simona Halep d. No. 4 Bianca Andreescu, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3

Red Group / doubles
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic d. No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan, 6-2, 5-7, 10-6
No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs d. No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka, 7-5, 1-6, 10-7

Tuesday’s schedule

Red Group / singles
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty vs. No. 3 Naomi Osaka, not before 6:30 p.m.
No. 6 Petra Kvitova vs. No. 7 Belinda Bencic, not before 8 p.m.

Purple Group / doubles
No. 4 Gabriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan vs. No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai, 4 p.m.
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova vs. No. 6 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova, following second singles match