Simona Halep. (Photo by: Xinhua/Liang Xu)
Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova meet in a winner-takes-all WTA Finals contest on Friday, with the victor progressing to the semi-finals of the season-ending tournament.
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Either Halep or Pliskova will proceed to the semi-finals from the Purple Group, along with defending champion, Elina Svitolina, who has already won the group following straight sets victories in her two matches.
While Pliskova is looking to advance to the semi-finals for the third straight year, Halep is attempting to get out of the round-robin phase of the tournament for the first time since 2014, when she reached the final in her debut appearance. She fell at the round-robin hurdle in the next three years, and missed last season’s tournament with a back injury.
The Romanian started the 2019 WTA Finals with a hard-fought victory over Canadian young gun, Bianca Andreescu, saving a match point before coming through 3-6 7-6 6-3, but she fell short against Svitolina in her second group match, losing 7-5 6-3 to the Ukrainian.
Halep had beaten Svitolina in their two previous meetings in 2019, but she couldn’t complete the hat-trick on Wednesday, as the excellent Svitolina continued her merry ways at the WTA Finals. The world No. 8 has now won her last eight matches at the year-end tournament.
In a clash between two of the finest counterpunchers in the sport, Svitolina won the crucial patience battle, extracting 38 unforced errors from Halep, while limiting her own aberrations to 25. Halep made an error-strew start and quickly slipped to a 0-3 deficit, and while she subsequently tidied up her game and restored parity, she played a loose twelfth game and dropped her serve to love to concede the opening set.
The Wimbledon champion held the early advantage in the second set, breaking for the 2-1 lead, but Svitolina again played the more solid tennis afterwards, winning five of the next six games to seal victory.
Halep must now regroup for one last push in the Purple Group, as she takes on Pliskova on Friday. The former world No. 1 is bidding for her fifth semi-final of the season, and her first since her superb triumph at Wimbledon- her only title so far in 2019. Halep’s post-Wimbledon form has not been great- she made the quarter finals in Toronto, but has failed to win back-to-back matches in her five tournaments since then.
She has had injury problems within that stretch, and arrived Shenzhen with question marks over the condition of her back, but she has held up well enough so far. Can she find the win against Pliskova on Friday and take her place in Saturday’s semi-finals?
Problem is Pliskova also wants the same thing, and the Czech has not failed to make the last four in her two previous appearances at the season-ending Finals.
The world No. 2 lost a very tight one to Svitolina in her opening match, falling 7-6 6-4 to the Ukrainian, but she rebounded to get past Andreescu in her second match, registering the win when her Canadian opponent retired after the first set with a knee injury.
Having lost to Andreescu in their previous encounter in Toronto, Pliskova was again on the back foot early on, winning just three of the first 14 points as Andreescu took a 2-0 lead, but the defining moment of the match came in the third game when the Canadian hurt her knee while stretching for a return.
The US Open champion received lengthy medical attention after that, but with her movement compromised, it was always going to be a struggle. Pliskova made the most of the opportunity, winning six of the next seven games to take the opening set, after which Andreescu decided she could not continue.
“I didn’t know it was really that bad,” Pliskova after the match. “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.”
Pliskova will now attempt to reach her seventh semi-final of a season that has already yielded a tour-leading four titles. She went all the way in Brisbane, Rome, Eastbourne and Zhengzhou, while her other stand-out results include a runner-up finish in Miami and a semi-final run at the Australian Open. With the Czech still seeking her first Grand Slam success, victory in Shenzhen this week will represent the biggest title in her career.
She’s still got plenty of work to do if she’s to get there, starting with a crunch clash against Halep on Friday.
“I think that’s going to be a great match-up,” said Pliskova of her next match. “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.”
Halep has generally had the measure of Pliskova through their careers, winning seven of their ten meetings, but Pliskova has won two of the last three, including their most recent meeting in Miami in March.
As is usually the case with Pliskova, her serving is crucial to her chances of success, especially against an opponent like Halep who returns well, moves supremely, and forces her opponents to play lots of shots- something Pliskova doesn’t want to be doing.
It is very possible that Pliskova overpowers Halep with her big serve and groundstrokes, but given the slowness of the Shenzhen surface, and Halep’s overall record against Pliskova, the Romanian starts as favourite in my opinion.
Simona Halep vs Karolina Pliskova is live from Shenzhen on Friday, 1 November from 8:00pm local time/ 12:00pm BMT