Elina Svitolina looks set to make it back-to-back WTA Finals titles as she brings a perfect 5-0 record vs world no. 1 Ashleigh Barty into Sunday’s Shenzhen final.
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Ashleigh Barty aims to finish off a career-best WTA Tour season with a last big title as she competes in the final of the WTA Finals Shezhen on Sunday – but she will have to overcome an 0-5 head-to-head against defending champion Elina Svitolina to do so.
Barty had the worst record against the rest of the field of any of the elite eight coming into the tournament, but her performances on her debut at the season-ending championships have been as quietly impressive as the rest of her 2019. Having prepared for Shenzhen by going 7-2 on the Asian swing, making the semifinals in Wuhan and her second Premier Mandatory final of the year in Beijing, Barty lost to alternate Kiki Bertens in the group stages but beat Petra Kvitova and fellow debutante Belinda Bencic to make the final four, where she booked her place in the final by coming back from a set down to beat Karolina Pliskova.
Slow starts have been an issue for Barty on and off in 2019 and that was the case again on Saturday as she struggled on serve in the opening stretches, having to fend off seven break points in her first three service games before Pliskova converted the eighth. The Australian managed to pick up her serving game from midway through the first set, and even had a point to break back as Pliskova served for the opener, but her game was still misfiring a bit off the ground and it was the more experienced Czech who took the lead.
Barty did not take long to turn the tables, however. After saving four break points at 1-1 in the second set, she broke Pliskova for 3-1 and then broke her again on the way to levelling the match 3-6, 6-2, playing with much greater assurance off the ground. There was nothing to choose between them for the first five games of the decider, but at 2-3, Barty broke through when Pliskova calamitously double-faulted to give up the first break point of the set after having failed to put away a forehand on break point. Pliskova would successfully hold serve at 2-5 to force Barty to serve it out, and saved two match points when the Australian attempted to do just that, but Barty wrapped up victory on the third, ending with 11 aces to Pliskova’s one, 11 of 12 break points saved and 36 winners to 26 unforced errors (Pliskova’s numbers: 23 and 30, respectively).
‘It’s been an incredible year for myself and my team – it’s the perfect way to cap it off,’ Barty said. ‘Knowing you’ve played the best of the best during the week, now you have the opportunity to play for a title, it’s really special.’
Barty is not the type to run away from a challenge, but she would surely have preferred to face Belinda Bencic in the final rather than Elina Svitolina, who is not only the defending champion at the season-ending championships but has a perfect 5-0 record against the Australian.
Just like last year, Svitolina did not come into the WTA Finals as the favourite after fairly indifferent results over the past couple of months; she is 7-5 since the US Open. But just like last year, Svitolina can go undefeated and claim the maximum $4.7 million prize money with one more victory. The Ukrainian did not drop a set in the group stages in wins over Pliskova, Simona Halep and alternate Sofia Kenin, and Saturday’s defeat of Belinda Bencic means that she is just one win away from becoming the first woman to win the WTA Finals in consecutive years since Serena Williams in 2014-16, and the first to successfully defend their maiden title since Justine Henin in 2006-7.
Svitolina did drop her first set of the week against Bencic in Saturday’s semifinals, as she found herself perpetually the less aggressive player throughout the first set with Bencic determined to keep the points short. It was Svitolina who earned the first break point of the match, but she could not convert and Bencic claimed the first break of serve with a clean return winner for 4-2, only to be broken straight back herself.
As Bencic held for 5-4, however, there were signs that she was feeling something in her right hamstring and after holding to 15 to lead 6-5, she called for the trainer and underwent a fairly lengthy medical timeout on-court on that right thigh. It was awkward timing for Svitolina, and when play resumed with the Ukrainian serving to stay in the set, a couple of unforced errors were all it took for Bencic to reach two set points. Svitolina fended off both, the second with her eighth ace of the set, but a marathon all-court rally on the third went Bencic’s way as she finally overcame Svitolina’s scrambling resistance with a clever lob.
Svitolina immediately broke in the second set as she stepped up the aggression on return in response to losing her first set of the tournament, and Bencic, although she stayed in touch, was clearly struggling with her right leg even as she continued to land some dangerous, albeit erratic, blows. Svitolina came back from 15-40 to lead 4-2 and went on to take the set, clearly enjoying the physical advantage as the decider began with Bencic in tears on the court as she was broken to trail 0-2 in the third. A few games later, Bencic retired trailing 7-5, 3-6, 1-4 and Svitolina had booked her place in the final.
‘To stay into the match, it was tough. When someone injured, [she] tries to go for more,’ Svitolina said. ‘Actually, she was hitting the ball very good…I had to try to move her.
‘This was not easy because it’s tough to find a balance when you have to really hit the ball, then when you have to try to direct the ball well. She was going for it. Sometimes, of course, she was missing a lot. Sometimes she was hitting amazing shots. That’s the challenge, what you have to be aware of.’
Besides her grim determination, it was Svitolina’s serving that impressed. The Ukrainian never really looked happy with her game off the ground, but she served 16 aces – a record for her in a single match – and outdid Bencic in every single serving category, not an easy thing to do with Bencic’s superb aggressive returning.
Svitolina is now in a very good position with the aforementioned 5-0 record she enjoys against Barty. Three of those five wins have been in straight sets, as well. If there is hope for Barty, it’s that their last meeting was the closest match they have played: A 7-6(8), 5-7, 6-4 victory for Svitolina at Indian Wells in March. Svitolina’s incredible defense, her ability to keep consistent depth on the ball and track everything down, has always frustrated Barty’s big weapons and on the very slow court in Shenzhen, despite Barty’s high level of confidence and tenacious battling, it’s difficult to see any other outcome than another win for Svitolina.
Barty vs Svitolina WTA Finals Shenzhen tennis is live from Shenzhen on Sunday at 7.30pm local/11.30am GMT
Barty vs Svitolina tennis live streaming, preview and predictions – Top seed Barty faces defending WTA Finals champion Svitolina for Shenzhen title
Elina Svitolina looks set to make it back-to-back WTA Finals titles as she brings a perfect 5-0 record vs world…
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