SHENZHEN, October 30, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Elina Svitolina came out strong and won 14 of the first 18 points – taking a 3-0 lead – and played solidly throughout her one hour and 39 minute match against Wimbledon champion Simona Halep at the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, on Wednesday. The eighth-seeded Ukrainian won her seventh straight WTA Finals match dating back to last year and the defending champion became the first player to punch her ticket for this weekend’s semifinals with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over the No. 5 seed Halep. The win improved Svitolina’s match record to 2-0 in the Purple Group following her straight-set win over No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova on Monday.
— WTA (@WTA) October 30, 2019
“It was an extremely difficult match, we are both chasing a lot of balls and we leave a lot of energy out on the court,” said Svitolina during her on-court interview. She is yet to drop a set in her two matches in Shenzhen. “I was playing solidly today and my defense was good. So, I’m very happy about that.”
Indeed, Svitolina won 49 percent (35 of 71) of her return-point opportunities by hitting many creative angles with her shots – perhaps, to compensate for the slowness of the court – and converted four of eight break points on Halep’s serve, including a love break to win the first set. She hit 19 winners to 25 unforced errors while Halep finished with 22 winners and committed 38 unforced errors. Svitolina outpointed the Romanian 74-61. It was Svitolina’s fifth win over Halep in nine WTA-level matches and first this season.
“We all are tired after a long year,” Halep told media afterward. “We have to do extra work on the shots and the points on this surface. But we have what we have, and that’s it. I’m not going to complain about that.”
Two games from the finish line, Svitolina’s coach, Andy Bettles, made an on-court visit to remind his protégé of the importance of taking her time and to be resilient. After all, she was up a set and leading 4-3. He kept his message to Svitolina simple but positive – and it helped.
As Svitolina explained during her press conference: “I try to work every single point and start from the beginning just trying to take one point at a time. I don’t really think so much about if it’s good, if it’s bad. Just taking every point, every game at a time. I try to step on the court and to always have positive mindset.”
No doubt, Svitolina is relieved to be undefeated in group play – and, most importantly, to still be in contention to repeat her title success of last year.
Tearful Andreescu retires against Pliskova
Meanwhile, Bianca Andreescu sought to replicate the result of her only previous meeting with No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, a three-set victory, which came during the Rogers Cup quarterfinals last August en route to her second title of 2019. Unfortunately, the 19-year-old Canadian ended her match against Pliskova prematurely due to an injury retirement after only one set. Pliskova won 6-3, completing it with her third service ace. A tearful Andreescu, who had called a medical time out just two games and two minutes into the 51-minute round-robin match because of a twisted left knee, approached the net to shake Pliskova’s hand. The match was suddenly but not surprisingly over.
“I was looking forward to this match. I’m sorry she had to retire,” Pliskova said on TV afterward. “Everybody’s retiring this part of the season. It’s really tough to play.
“I’m feeling good and looking forward to playing some more tennis.”
Later during her press conference, Pliskova said: “I didn’t know it was really that bad. Of course, I feel sorry for her. … I just felt I’m really in the match. I was ready to fight today, not to give it to her easy. Doesn’t matter how bad injured she is, how bad she feels, I just wanted to win, get this victory to keep myself in the tournament, which happened, of course not in the best way.”
Andreescu started quickly, going ahead 2-0, 15-15, when she pulled up after stretching to cover a wide serve to Pliskova’s forehand. Then, after getting her left knee heavily taped by the trainer, it became apparent that her movement was affected by the injury.
During an on-court visit by Andreescu’s coach, Sylvain Bruneau, at the change over following the fifth game, he told his pupil, “Don’t push it.” Andreescu responded, “I don’t want to stop.”
Although Andreescu saved a trio of break points to hold serve at 3-all – and desperately tried to soldier on – ultimately, it was for naught. She lost the final three games of the brief match, and by the end, Andreescu was unable to bend her knee.
During her post-match press conference, Andreescu explained what happened. “I stepped weirdly on a return. I heard my knee crack. It kind of went inwards. Putting pressure afterwards on it really bothered me. I could barely bend my knee. But I fought with the pain as much as I could,” she said.
“At some point an athlete has to say ‘stop’ and just listen to their body. That’s what I did.
“It’s disappointing ’cause this is the last tournament of the year, you want to go all out. You’re playing one of the biggest tournaments of the year, too. It’s not easy.”
After starting her career with eight consecutive wins over Top 10 players, Andreescu now has lost three straight – to Naomi Osaka during the quarterfinals in Beijing, and against Simona Halep and Pliskova at the WTA Finals. She will await the results of an MRI before deciding on Thursday whether to play her last round-robin match, which would be against Purple Group winner Elina Svitolina on Friday.
With Andreescu eliminated from advancing out of round-robin play after going 0-2, Halep and Pliskova remain alive for one semifinal berth still up for grabs in the Purple Group. They will face each other on Friday.
“I think that’s going to be a great matchup,” said Pliskova, who trails 7-3 in her career head-to-head against Halep. “Should be incredible match. I hope it’s going to be a good match to watch, too. I’m sure, because she’s putting a lot of balls back. The tennis with her, I feel it’s always good to watch. Of course, for me tough because there’s going to be a lot of rallies. I played good match against Svitolina. I think it’s going to be a little bit similar to Simona. She beat her, so should be close. But I still have to play well. It’s going to be difficult.”
What they’re saying
• Former WTA Finals champion Agnieszka Radwanska, who is attending the season finale as the WTA Legends Ambassador, was asked who of the younger generation of players she’s been most impressed with. Her answer was 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu. “You can see she’s playing the tennis that seems like she’s on tour for so many years, and she just actually started. That is very impressive from her.”
• Alternate Kiki Bertens, who upset World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty on Tuesday, just two days after finishing runner-up to Aryna Sabalenka in the WTA Elite Trophy competition: “Everything this week is extra. I’m lucky to get in. I’ll do the best that I can and just try to give all the energy that’s left in me. I just beat the World No. 1, so it’s a good feeling.”
• No. 2 seeds Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic and Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan, who teamed to win Wimbledon this summer, have already clinched a berth in Saturday’s doubles semifinals by winning their first two round-robin matches in the Purple Group. Strycova said, “It was our goal to qualify here. We are here and try to enjoy every moment. We have a big team, so we enjoy on and off the court as well. It’s great to be here and we are really appreciative.”
• Sofia Kenin, who moved up to first alternate after original first alternate Kiki Bertens was elevated to the main draw to replace injured Naomi Osaka, is ready, willing and able should anyone else go down. She told WTATennis.com earlier this week: “My job is to be here already and just be on call. I’m doing everything I can to be ready. I’m just chilling, relaxing.
“We’ll see if I’m going to get in, but if not, I’m just gonna relax. It’s like a mini start to vacation, kind of! But of course, you just have to always be ready to play.”
Purple Group / singles
No. 8 Elina Svitolina d. No. 5 Simona Halep, 7-5, 6-3
No. 2 Karolina Pliskova d. No. 4 Bianca Andreescu, 6-3, retired
Red Group / doubles
No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka d. No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan, 7-6 (5), 6-4
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic d. No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, 7-5, 6-2
Red Group / singles
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty vs. No. 6 Petra Kvitova, 6:30 p.m.
Alternate Kiki Bertens vs. No. 7 Belinda Bencic, not before 8 p.m.
Purple Group /doubles
No. 6 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova vs. No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai, 4 p.m.
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova vs. No. 4 Gabriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan, not before 9:30 p.m.