SHENZHEN, October 29, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
World No. 3 Naomi Osaka’s surprise withdrawal from the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, due a right shoulder injury, is a reminder that finishing a long – sometimes grueling – season intact is frequently tough.
Osaka began the WTA Finals with a 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-4 win over No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova on Sunday and was set to play World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty on Tuesday evening. Instead, she was replaced in the Red Group draw by first alternate Kiki Bertens, who two days ago finished runner-up to Aryna Sabalenka at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai.
“I’m disappointed to have to withdraw from the Finals,” Osaka said in a statement. “It has been a great event in Shenzhen, and it’s the biggest WTA event of the year. This is not how I wanted to end this tournament or my season. I look forward to getting healthy and hope to be back here in Shenzhen next year.”
Later, during a news conference, Osaka told media that she injured her right shoulder three weeks ago during the China Open final in Beijing, but held out hope that her injury would heal in time for her to compete in the WTA Finals.
“I didn’t serve for a while when I was in Japan. I just started serving, like, the last two days. Felt better, came here, then I played my match,” the 23-year-old Osaka explained.
“I felt it immediately. When I woke up the day after, it was throbbing and stuff. Yeah, didn’t serve at all yesterday.”
Osaka said the injury to her right shoulder has been a recurring one. “I injured my shoulder like five years ago or something, but not, like, heavy,” she said. “It was in Thailand when I was like 17 or something. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I just had to rest it. I’m hoping it’s more like that.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s anything more serious than muscular. I think if it was like bone-related then I wouldn’t be able to lift it, but I am able to do that. It’s just a little bit painful.
“Definitely I don’t think it’s something that I would immediately need surgery for. I’ve never gotten surgery, so I feel like I’m very lucky on that. I’m not really hoping that will change any time soon.”
Following the US Open, Osaka finished her season on an upward swing with 11 straight victories and won back-to-back titles at the Pan Pacific Open in Osaka and the China Open in Beijing. It coincided with her father, Leonard François, taking over as her coach. Osaka ended 2019 with a total of three title triumphs, which included winning her second Grand Slam at the Australian Open last January. She was ranked No. 1 before a mid-season drop-off in form.
Now, Osaka is hopeful that with some rest and rehabilitation she’ll be ready for the 2020 season.
Pressure free, Bertens upsets Barty
World No. 10 Kiki Bertens, who arrived in Shenzhen on Monday as the first alternate until she was elevated to replace the injured Naomi Osaka, took full advantage of her opportunity and upset top seed Ashleigh Barty, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, Tuesday evening. Bertens, who came from a set and a break down, strung together eight magnificent winning games to garner the second set and take a commanding 4-0 lead in the decisive set as the level of her game rose while Barty’s fell. The two-hour and nine-minute victory marked the first time Bertens had beaten Barty in six tries and it was the Dutchwoman’s 55th victory of the 2019 season – most on the WTA Tour.
Although her serve was broken six times by Barty, Bertens broke the Aussie’s serve seven times. She overcame a shaky start and 43 unforced errors to hit 30 winners and served out the match. Barty hit 25 winners but committed an uncharacteristic 41 unforced errors. Each player totaled 97 points.
— WTA (@WTA) October 29, 2019
“As the match was continuing, I felt better and better,” said Bertens, quoted by the WTA Tour website in describing how she fought through fatigue to win. “The movement was getting a bit better. I was starting to feel the court. I could play a little bit more aggressive, come to the net.”
Barty told media afterward, “I’m probably most disappointed tonight in just not being able to kind of work my way through that, continue to do the right things. I went away from what worked in the middle of the second set there.”
Bertens, who was a WTA Finals semifinalist last year, was asked during a TV interview after winning if she felt any pressure going from being an alternate to suddenly playing with little time to think or prepare – then beating – the World No. 1 Barty. “For sure, not. No. So, I’m really happy at the moment,” she said with a giggle in her voice.
“It’s nice to be here in Shenzhen and the atmosphere is really nice. It’s the last tournament of the year. So, I’m trying to give all the energy that’s left in me.”
Bertens, who has played eight straight weeks on the WTA Tour since the US Open, will face Belinda Bencic in her next match on Thursday with her hopes of advancing out of group play still alive. Meanwhile, Bertens prevented Barty (1-1) from guaranteeing a place in the semifinals, which she would have secured with a win.
Needing a win, Bencic stays alive
No. 7 seed Belinda Bencic defeated No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, in one hour and 47 minutes to get her first WTA Finals win and the second of her career against the Czech star. With the outcome in doubt following a dismal second set, the Swiss No. 1 saved a break point to hold for 4-all, then broke Kvitova for the fifth time to push ahead 5-4 in the final set. She served out the victory to remain alive for a semifinal berth.
“Against Kvitova, you never have anything in your hands. You’re as well standing on the court and hoping she’ll miss sometimes,” said Bencic during her post-match media.
“I didn’t know before the matches. I just played. I knew if I don’t win this match I’m eliminated, but I didn’t think about it.”
Although she was outpointed by Kvitova, 77-73, Bencic found a way to win. She bookended a nice run of games in the first and third sets by winning the last four games of the opening set and the last three of the match. Bencic finished with 19 winners and 27 unforced errors while Kvitova hit 28 winners but committed 39 unforced errors. Each player broke the other’s serve five times.
“I think definitely she was dictating the game today,” Bencic said of Kvitova. “I don’t think we played our best tennis, for sure not. Maybe in the end, the couple last games I found my game, my rhythm, my groove somehow. I’m super proud of that.”
Bencic’s win, which came after losing her opening match to Ashleigh Barty on Sunday, means that all four competitors in the Red Group still have a chance to qualify for the semifinal round when they play their final group matches on Thursday (Bencic versus Kiki Bertens and Kvitova against Barty). Barty and Bencic are both 1-1, Bertens is 1-0 and Kvitova is 0-2.
“Somehow I didn’t even feel nervous,” Bencic admitted. “I had no pressure of not getting eliminated. I saw the script, like, what happens if this player wins, blah, blah, blah.”
Hsieh/Strycova improve to 2-0
• In a battle of first-day winners, Wimbledon champions and No. 2 seeds Hsieh Su-wei from Taiwan and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, held on to beat No. 6 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic, 6-2, 1-6, 10-5. Hsieh and Strycova improved to 2-0 in Purple Group doubles and clinched a berth in Saturday’s semifinals.
• No. 7 seeds and Australian Open titlists Samantha Stosur of Australia and Zhang Shuai from China leveled their Purple Group record at 1-1 with a 4-6, 6-4, 10-5 win over No. 4 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski from Canada and Xu Yifan of China. It was the second straight loss for the Canadian and Chinese pair.
By the numbers
When No. 8 seed Elina Svitolina beat No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, 7-6 (12), 6-4, in Purple Group play on Monday, the first set 26-point tie-break – in which Pliskova saved six set points and Svitolina one – was the longest tie-break of the 2019 WTA season.
“You tell yourself to stay in the moment. You just try to play one rally at a time, to don’t rush,” Svitolina revealed afterward. “Even when I had the chances to finish the set, because there was few, I thought I could play better.”
What they’re saying
No. 5 seed Simona Halep on her upcoming matchup against defending champion Elina Svitolina on Wednesday, with whom she has a 5-4 career head-to-head record, including 2-1 on indoor hard courts: “(It) looks like she likes the court. She feels it. She has confidence on this court. She won last year. It’s a great thing to win this tournament because it’s like playing the final of a Grand Slam every day.
“It’s going to be a tough match definitely. I’m looking forward to it. … I’m ready to fight again and I’m happy to be in this position.”
Halep has won both of her meetings against Svitolina this year, at Doha and Wimbledon.
Red Group / singles
Alternate Kiki Bertens d. No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, 3-, 6-3, 6-4
No. 7 Belinda Bencic d. No. 6 Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4
Purple Group / doubles
No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai d. No. 4 Gabriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan, 4-6, 6-4, 10-5
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova d. No. 6 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova, 6-2, 1-6, 10-5
Purple Group / singles
No. 5 Simona Halep vs. No. 8 Elina Svitolina, 6:30 p.m.
No. 2 Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 4 Bianca Andreescu, not before 8 p.m.
Red Group / doubles
No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan, 4 p.m.
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic vs. No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, following second singles match