Elina Svitolina. (Photo by: Xinhua/Liang Xu)
Elina Svitolina attempts to reach back-to-back finals at the season-ending WTA Finals when she faces Swiss, Belinda Bencic in Shenzhen on Saturday.
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Svitolina is also looking to reach her first final of the season, as she continues her bid to close a mixed year with a second straight WTA Finals title. The Ukrainian has surprisingly failed to reach a final this year, let alone win a title, but on the more positive side, the 25-year-old has recorded her best Grand Slam performances in 2019, reaching semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The world No. 8 is on a nine-match winning streak at the WTA Finals, having won all of her five matches in her title run last year, and all three-round robin matches this week. (She also won her final round-robin match in the 2017 edition but didn’t qualify for the semi-finals).
Svitolina entered the tournament as the lowest ranked player in the initial eight-woman field, and the only one in the field yet to win a title this season, but she arguably enters the semi-finals as the woman to beat, after winning all of her three round-robin matches in straight sets.
She opened with a 7-6 6-4 victory over Karolina Pliskova before beating Simona Halep 7-5 6-3 to confirm her spot in a sixth semi-final of the season. She ended the group phase with another hard-fourth win over familiar foe, Sofia Kenin, who has come in as an alternate for the injured Bianca Andreescu. Despite it being a dead rubber, Svitolina’s competitive juices were still very much flowing, obviously keen to take the winning momentum into Saturday’s semi-finals. In the fifth meeting between both players in 2019 (head-to-head was 2-2), Kenin served for both sets, but Svitolina staged a late fight on each occasion, before closing out a titanic battle on her sixth match point following a 22-point second-set tie break.
Three of Svitolina’s previous five semi-finals came inside the opening quarter of 2019 (Doha, Dubai and Indian Wells) in a decent start to the campaign, but she sustained a knee injury along the way, and struggled badly in the second quarter, losing five opening matches in six tournaments between the Miami Open in March and Eastbourne at the end of June.
However, almost out of nowhere, Svitolina produced a semi-final run at Wimbledon- the furthest she had been at a Grand Slam- while she repeated the feat at the US Open, where she arguably played her best tennis of the season. Her results in and around those major semi-final runs were consistent but not great, as she managed quarter finals in San Jose, Toronto, Zhengzhou, Wuhan and Beijing, but she has again found some fantastic at the WTA Finals, and will seek her first final of the season, and her second consecutive final at the year-end tournament when she faces Bencic on Saturday.
Bencic is through to the last four of the WTA Finals in her debut appearance at the tournament, following wins over Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens.
The Swiss was beaten by world No. 1, Ashleigh Barty in her opening match, but she got back on track with a three-set victory over Kvitova before confirming her semi-final spot when alternate, Bertens retired from their final group match. Bencic had recovered from a break down to take a 7-5 1-0 lead before Bertens quit the contest due to illness.
It’s great to see Bencic back among the sport’s elite after the injury trouble she endured a couple of seasons ago. The 22-year-old, who broke into the top-ten as a teenager in 2016, fell out of the top 300 in September 2017 following wrist surgery, but she hasn’t taken too long to re-establish her position in the top bracket of the sport, regaining her top-ten status during a brilliant 2019.
Amongst her stand-out performances this season were title runs in Dubai and Moscow, finals in Mallorca, and semi-finals in Hobart, Indian Wells, Madrid and the US Open, where she contested her maiden major semi-final. She’s into her eighth semi-final of the season in Shenzhen- can she upgrade this one to another final by taking out defending champion, Svitolina on Saturday?
Bencic has won two of their three previous meetings- the Swiss was victorious in their first encounter in Charleston in 2014, but they have split their two encounters in 2019; Bencic digging out a 6-2 3-6 7-6 win in Dubai, and Svitolina securing a more comfortable 6-2 6-4 victory in Toronto.
“We know all the game style that she has,” Svitolina said of Bencic. “She takes the ball quite early, and you have to be ready for this game style. For me the main thing is to recover first, to be fresh tomorrow physically and mentally.”
That wonderful ability to take the ball early, change direction and keep her opponents under pressure has again been a feature of Bencic’s week, but Svitolina, with her relentless consistency and obdurate refusal to lose at this tournament, is surely the woman to beat heading into the final weekend of the WTA season.
Elina Svitolina vs Belinda Bencic is live from Shenzhen on Saturday, 2 November from 6:30pm local time/ 10:30am GMT