Elina Svitolina gets her WTA Finals title defence underway on Monday as she confronts second seed, Karolina Pliskova in the opening match of the Purple Group.
*Geo-restrictions apply. Streams available to customers with an active balance
Svitolina has been one of the most consistent performers on the tour over the last few years, but not many expected her to win the season-ending finals last season. However, the Ukrainian put together a high-quality week in Singapore last year, winning all of her five matches to claim the biggest title of her career.
The 25-year-old had formed a very good habit of winning multiple WTA titles in recent seasons, but she has surprisingly struggled on that front in 2019, and heads into this week’s tournament in Shenzhen still seeking her first title of the season. It’s been a mixed year for Svitolina- while she toiled fruitlessly for that elusive title, she recorded her best Grand Slam performances, reaching her maiden major semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Svitolina opened the year with defeat to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Brisbane, but she responded with a decent quarter final showing at the Australian Open (lost to eventual champion, Naomi Osaka), and followed that up with successive semi-finals in Doha, Dubai and Indian Wells. However, that came at a cost, as she had damaged her knee in the Middle East. Svitolina went through a really rough patch after Indian Wells, falling at the first hurdles in five of her next six tournaments, but with no one paying much attention, on her least favourite surface, she launched into a first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon (lost to Halep).
The world No. 8 repeated that semi-final run at the US Open, playing arguably her best tennis of the season to make the last four without dropping a set, before crashing to Serena Williams. While Svitolina has compiled her best Grand Slam results this season, she struggled to reproduce those results outside the majors, with her last semi-final away from the Grand Slam coming at Indian Wells in March. That left her in some danger of missing out on the WTA Finals as the season wound to close. She did just about enough in the end, reaching quarter finals in WTA Premier-level tournaments Wuhan and Beijing to effectively seal her spot in Shenzhen.
She has clearly reserved her best for the biggest tournaments this year- can she put together another title winning run in Shenzhen this week?
“There is [no] easy draws here in the Finals. For sure it’s lots of exciting matches”, said Svitolina ahead of her opening match. “For me, as last year, I’ll just try to take one match at a time. I don’t look too far ahead. I try to stay really focused on the upcoming match, and that’s the way I will try to do it.”
First up for the reigning champion is the second seed, Karolina Pliskova, who like Svitolina, is competing at the year-end Finals for the third straight year.
Pliskova has compiled a brilliant season, winning a tour-leading four titles, and climbing to No. 2 in the world. The Czech opened the year with a title run in Brisbane, and had subsequent successes in Rome, Eastbourne and Zhengzhou. She also contested a Premier Mandatory final in Miami (lost to Ashleigh Barty), while she made the semi-finals at the Australian Open, where she sensationally took out Serena Williams in the quarter finals, despite trailing 5-1 in the final set, saving four match points in an epic comeback win. (Williams appeared to be bothered by an ankle injury in the latter stages of that match, even though the American has refused to blame her loss on the injury).
For all the great work she did in 2019, Pliskova continues to be without a Grand Slam title, and did not make a major quarter final after her efforts in Melbourne. She fell to Petra Martic in the third round at Roland Garros, and suffered fourth round defeats to Karolina Muchova and Johanna Konta at Wimbledon and the US Open respectively. Addressing her Grand Slam drought will again be high up on her priority list in 2020, but before then, the Czech will attempt to close out 2019 with her biggest career title this week in Shenzhen.
Pliskova lost some momentum towards the end of the regular season, winning just one match in her last two tournaments in Wuhan and Beijing- can she rouse herself for one final big week in Shenzhen?
She has made the semi-finals in each of her two previous WTA Finals campaign in 2017 and 2018, and her quest to get out of the round-robin phase for the third straight year starts against reigning champion, Svitolina on Monday.
“I think I have for sure, with Svitolina a positive head-to-head, but of course she is defending champion so she was playing well last year,” Pliskova assessed.
“She’s going to be difficult. Maybe if we start on Sunday, it will be a plus because she will be nervous a little bit, but overall, I think the surface is quite slow, so it can suit her game quite good. We practiced today and it was kind of good practice. It’s going to be open”.
The Czech does have a positive record against Svitolina, but the 5-3 record does not tell the full story of the rivalry. Pliskova defeated Svitolina in their first four five meetings, but Svitolina has flipped that record dramatically over the last couple of seasons, winning their last three encounters, the most recent being at the WTA Finals Singapore last season.
With that momentum in the head-to-head, and a counterpunching style that bothers Pliskova, on a slow-ish Shenzhen surface, I’m liking Svitolina’s chances of extending that her winning streak over the world No. 2.
Elina Svitolina vs Karolina Pliskova is live from Shenzhen on Monday, 28 October from 6:30pm local time/ 9:30am GMT