Tennis Channel Live: WTA Finals lookahead

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Maria Sakkari vs. Iga Swiatek, Group Chichén Itzá

The beauty of the WTA Finals is there are no easy matches. One player among the eight in Guadalajara with a track record of successfully going toe-to-toe with the elite this year is Maria Sakkari. The first Greek to qualify for the season finale in WTA history, Sakkari has collected a co-season leading seven wins over Top 10 opposition.

“It's pretty crazy when you think you're one of the top eight players, best players, in the world,” the No. 4 seed said in her pre-tournament press conference Tuesday. “Sometimes it's tough for me to realize that I'm even here at this point of my career. A few years back I wouldn't even believe that I could be here.”

Sakkari and Swiatek each made their Top 10 debuts in 2021.

Sakkari and Swiatek each made their Top 10 debuts in 2021.

Two of those victories came against Swiatek, in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and in the semifinals of Ostrava. After knocking out the Pole, Sakkari couldn’t quite get across the finish line and is one of two players here seeking her first title of the season. That’s not the case for Swiatek, who won her first hard-court crown in February at Adelaide and added a 1000-level triumph in Rome. Following her Indian Wells exit, Swiatek decompressed for a period of R&R in Phoenix. There, she leaned on the local expertise of frequent doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands to arrange practice sessions at a higher altitude in the mountains before arriving in Mexico.

“I'm pretty happy we stayed here because I could rest and see little bit of States, which I didn't have [the] chance to do my whole life,” Swiatek said.

The 20-year-old added that her trickiest adjustment in 2021 has been “learning how to play with the higher ranking because usually I was an underdog.” Winless against Sakkari and the lower seed at No. 5, Swiatek just might be in an ideal position to thrive.

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Aryna Sabalenka vs. Paula Badosa, Group Chichén Itzá

At August’s Western & Southern Open, Badosa wiped away a break-of-serve deficit to topple Sabalenka, 7-6 (4) in the third, to claim their inaugural encounter. It was the second successive round Badosa came through a decisive tiebreaker, after saving five match points in her Cincinnati opener. The Spaniard’s resolve has been on display throughout 2021, but none greater than Indian Wells, where she captured her biggest title by prevailing over Victoria Azarenka in—you guessed it—a third-set tiebreaker.

“I'm very proud of myself. I think I did a very good year,” the No. 7 seed said. “It always has been a dream to me to be in Top 10, one of the best players in the world. Now it's coming true.”

Of the six qualifiers Sabalenka's faced at least once before, Badosa is the only one she doesn't have a win against. Will that change Thursday?

Of the six qualifiers Sabalenka's faced at least once before, Badosa is the only one she doesn't have a win against. Will that change Thursday?

If Badosa’s Indian Wells falls in the fairytale category, Sabalenka’s can only be branded a nightmare. The Belarusian didn’t get to step foot on the grounds after testing positive for COVID-19 when she disembarked in California. Up until that point, Sabalenka had her own breakthroughs to celebrate, a world No. 2 ranking and first pair of major semifinals among them. Going 1-1 in Moscow upon her return, the top seed headed to the Sunshine State for two types of prescriptions.

“I went to Miami for another block of preparation, which was really hard. I'm really happy that I'm here, healthy, hopefully ready to go. Not hopefully, I think I'm ready to go,” a smiling Sabalenka said. “I think I'm clear right now because in Miami I did the vaccine, Johnson and Johnson.”

Out of all of the initial round-robin matches, this encounter could be the one most defined by the competitor who figures out how to locate the lines in the unusual conditions. Here’s to letting it fly.