Pliskova In, WTA Finals Last Four Set

SHENZHEN, November 1, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 5 seed Simona Halep came into Friday’s final day of round-robin play at the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, fighting for second place in the Red Group. With a semifinal berth at stake – and a meeting against WTA Finals debutante and No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty going to the winner – the encounter took on a winner-takes-all kind of tenor.

And the winner who took all was: Pliskova, 6-0, 2-6, 6-4. She rallied in the decisive set and at 5-4 broke Halep for the seventh time during the one hour and 43 minute match to seal the victory and advance to her third straight WTA Finals last four. Pliskova (2-1) will face No. 1 seed Barty (2-1) in Saturday’s second semifinal.

Although Halep led her career head-to-head against Pliskova 7-3, they had never faced each other in their third season finale together. Now, the reigning Wimbledon champion has lost two straight to the former World No. 1.

“I think overall was a good match,” said Pliskova, during her post-match press conference. “I think a little bit up and down from both of us. But that’s how it is sometimes.”

Pliskova hit just one groundstroke unforced error in the opening set and fired 11 winners en route to winning it 6-0.

“I think I was playing great the first set,” Pliskova admitted. “I think kind of she was playing the way I wanted, to have the balls exactly where she played. I just felt great. I was really going for my shots. Her serve was not really effective. I was really pushing her from the second serve. I didn’t really miss much, that’s true.”

Then, in a reversal of fortune, Halep turned things around. She zapped a perfect backhand to break Pliskova for a third time in the second set to win 6-2. The best-of-3 sets became a one-set shootout.

“You’re doing incredible. Really proud of you,” said Darren Cahill to his pupil, Halep, during an on-court coaching session before the start of the third set. He offers a few pointers and more encouragement. Now, it was up to Halep to execute her coach’s advice. She wasn’t able to do it.

Instead, Pliskova went 3-for-3 in break point conversions and after trailing 0-2, she recovered to go ahead 3-2. During the 5th game changeover, Cahill had a heart-to-heart coaching session with Halep. He said:

“The last three games you’ve been an absolute disgrace on the court. Give yourself a chance by pulling yourself back in. This is on you. Get your attitude back on track and you will win this match. I have full belief. How are you going to define yourself as an athlete and a competitor? This isn’t even about the result anymore.”

Halep was unable to turn the match around and pull it out. Pliskova won and finished second in the Purple Group. Halep ended up 1-2. Pliskova hit 28 winners and Halep’s 30 unforced errors contributed to her loss.

“Semifinal is, of course, great,” Pliskova said. “Now third time, so there’s always the chance to go little bit more. That’s my goal for now.”

Svitolina goes undefeated in group play

Meanwhile, the other Purple group match, between No. 8 seed Elina Svitolina and alternate Sofia Kenin, who replaced injured No. 4 seed Bianca Andreescu, merely served as a tuneup for the defending champion from Ukraine. However, Kenin made quite a match of it and saved five match points during a 22-point second-set tie break. Svitolina finally prevailed, 7-5, 7-6 (10) in two hours and 10 minutes for her eighth consecutive WTA Finals victory going back to her title run last year.

“Another match, another tie break. I’m very, very happy that I won,” Svitolina said during an on-court interview. She came back from a break down in both sets and finished with 11 aces and hit 25 winners. “Sometimes, you have to fight through the tough moments and tough games. That’s what I was trying to do. I got rewarded in the end.”

Svitolina and Kenin came in having split four previous meetings 2-2, all this year on outdoor hard courts. But with Svitolina already assured of a place in Saturday’s semifinals, where she will face first-time WTA Finals competitor and No. 7 seed Belinda Bencic, there was no pressure. By winning in straight sets, Svitolina became the first player to not lose a set through round-robin play since Serena Williams in 2013.

Sluiter ends coaching partnership with Bertens

On Friday, Raemon Sluiter announced the end of his four-year coaching partnership with World No. 10 Kiki Bertens.

“I would like to thank Kiki for her trust, hard work and dedication over the last four years,” Sluiter wrote on social media. “I wish her, Remko and Elise all the best for the future. I would like to thank the WTA and all my fellow coaches. Life on tour can be tough, but I really had the feeling that we were in the same boat.”

Bertens was ranked No. 110 when Sluiter, a former ATP World No. 46, began coaching her in August 2015. She posted a statement of her own: “Sometimes you also have to make tough decisions which you believe it would make you better. Next year I will not continue to work with Raemon anymore. I would like to say thank you for everything you have done for me in the past 4 years. I have grown as a player and as a person. Without you this would have been impossible. Thank you for everything! Next year I will continue to work with Elise (Tamaela) as my coach.”

After reaching the finals last week at the WTA Elite Trophy event, Bertens was an alternate this week at the WTA Finals and was inserted into the draw as a replacement for injured Naomi Osaka. She defeated top seed Ashleigh Barty before retiring against No. 7 seed Belinda Bencic. Bertens played in 28 WTA Tour events this season and finished with a 55-26 win-loss record.

What they’re saying

Zhang Shuai of China on her doubles partnership with Samantha Stosur from Australia: “When we are together, we are both very positive. When we look at each other, we always smile as each other. When we have each other, we draw strength in each other. We know we can be a really strong team.” Zhang and Stosur, the reigning Australian Open champions, qualified for the doubles semifinals by finishing in second place (2-1) in the Purple Group. They will the face Red Group first place team of Timea Babos from Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France (3-0) on Saturday. Babos and Mladenovic wrapped up group play undefeated after beating No. 1 seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, 4-6, 6-2, 10-5.

Friday’s results

Purple Group / singles
No. 8 Elina Svitolina d. Alternate Sofia Kenin, 7-5, 7-6 (10)
No. 2 Karolina Pliskova d. No. 5 Simona Halep, 6-0, 2-6, 6-4

Red Group / doubles
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic d. No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka, 4-6, 6-2, 10-5
No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/DeminSchuurs d. No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan, 6-2, 6-4

Saturday’s schedule

Singles semifinals
No. 7 Belinda Bencic vs. No. 8 Elina Svitolina, 6:30 p.m.
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty vs. No. 2 Karolina Pliskova, not before 8 p.m.

Doubles semifinals
No. 3 Timea Babos/ Kristina Mladenovic vs. No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai, 4 p.m.
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova vs. No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, not before 9:30 p.m.