Tennis Channel Live: Anett Kontaveit is on fire

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In 1972, Chris Evert won every set she played en route to winning the inaugural season finale of women's tennis, then known as the Virginia Slims Championships. It featured a 16-player draw, and 14 of the competitors hailed from either the United States or Australia.

The year-end championships concept soon evolved into a pinnacle marker on the women’s tour. From Martina Navratilova to Stefanie Graf to Monica Seles to the Williams sisters, so many of the game’s greatest athletes have joined Evert in growing the legacy of this tournament by hoisting its trophy. Worth reminding: Navratilova remarkably stood in the winner's circle eight times in singles and 13 in doubles (she was a dual champion on six occasions).

Today’s event has downshifted from 16 singles competitors to just eight, and after rotating monikers, landed on WTA Finals. It no longer crosses calendar years, instead acting as the end point of a persistent journey beginning in January. An initial loss does not mean a player’s tournament is over, as a round-robin format determines which four athletes advance from two groups to the knockout phase. There have even been a pair of instances where a participant survived two defeats and ended up with the trophy in hand.

The Original 9 dreamed that any girl born in the world would have a place to compete, and if the 50th edition that kicks off Wednesday is any reflection on that ambition, it’s an apt celebration of their vision. For starters, Mexico is hosting the event for the first time, after Guadalajara stepped in when Shenzhen organizers were forced to bow out due to COVID-19 restrictions. Aspiring local players will see the level it requires to be here, from taking in past major titlists like Garbiñe Muguruza to cheering on home favorite Giuliana Olmos, who earned her place alongside Sharon Fichman in the doubles field.

Six players are set to make their singles debuts. Two are flying flags that have never been represented before: Maria Sakkari for Greece, and Anett Kontaveit for Estonia. The Czech Republic is enjoying its 10th successive year-end championships with at least one singles contender, dating back to Petra Kvitova’s victorious debut in 2011. Spain, seeking its first ever singles winner, has two prospects for the first time in 21 years (Muguruza and Paula Badosa). The two veterans of this spectacle (Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova) have never tasted victory, thus guaranteeing a sixth consecutive maiden champion.

Group Chichén Itzá

  • Aryna Sabalenka
  • Maria Sakkari
  • Iga Swiatek
  • Paula Badosa

Group Teotihuacán

  • Barbora Krejcikova
  • Karolina Pliskova
  • Garbine Muguruza
  • Anett Kontaveit

World No. 1 Ash Barty ended her season early due to continuing COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions.

The eight contenders pose with the Billie Jean King trophy during Tuesday evening's draw ceremony.

The eight contenders pose with the Billie Jean King trophy during Tuesday evening's draw ceremony.

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There is a player with all the momentum in the world. The name’s Anett Kontaveit, and to her opposition's dismay, hasn't found the net much of late. On August 23, she stood at just No. 30 in the race to the WTA Finals. On Halloween, Kontaveit prevailed over Simona Halep in a win-or-go-home situation at Cluj-Napoca to claim the last ticket—her fourth title in seven events, sinking Ons Jabeur’s dream of qualifying. What does the 25-year-old have left in the tank is a question worth waiting to see play out.

On the subject of energy reserves… There are players with questions marks, like Aryna Sabalenka. The world No. 2 progressed to consecutive Slam semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open, compiled 44 victories and raised her career singles title haul to 10. So what’s casting uncertainties? Sabalenka contracted COVID-19 ahead of the BNP Paribas Open in October, and picked up just two matches in her lone appearance (Moscow) since Flushing Meadows.

And then there are players who have been close, yet so far away. Karolina Pliskova may be the odds-on favorite based on her experience. Though 7-8 lifetime at these championships, Pliskova has made it through to the semifinals on her last three attempts, only to be foiled at that hurdle each time. Garbiñe Muguruza went 3-0 in group play on her debut six years ago, but was upstaged by one of those eventual 1-2 survivors—Agnieszka Radwanska—and couldn’t replicate the round-robin success in her next two trips.

Speaking of Radwanska, could Iga Swiatek bring the crown back to Poland? The 20-year-old added her first 1000 and 500-level trophies to her resume this season, and was the only woman to appear in the second week at all four majors. Besides the Olympics, Swiatek’s main disappointment may have been her title defense ending in the quarterfinals of a wide-open Roland Garros, where she was outclassed by Maria Sakkari. The Greek cracked the Top 10, posting a joint-leading seven Top 10 victories and making the semifinals at two majors. It’s been a breakout season defined by trusting the process. Like Swiatek however, Sakkari left Paris with an aftertaste of discontent, for she was a point away from reaching the final.

In Guadalajara, Krejcikova is the only 2021 major singles champion vying for the hardware.

In Guadalajara, Krejcikova is the only 2021 major singles champion vying for the hardware.

The player who saved that match point—Barbora Krejcikova—prevailed 9-7 in the third, in one of the matches of the year. She went on to complete a magical sweep of the French Open singles and doubles trophies. Krejcikova is the first player to qualify for the WTA Finals in both singles and doubles since countrywoman Pliskova achieved the feat in 2016. While accustomed to the workload, the Czech is the only one of the eight who made the trek from Prague after suiting up for her nation at last week’s Billie Jean King Cup.

One rival Krejcikova will be thrilled not to have in her group? Paula Badosa. The Spaniard defeated Krejcikova for the second time this year at Indian Wells, where a giant-killing run propelled her from the outside looking in to a name that could be engraved on the Billie Jean King trophy come November 17.

Drawn into Group Chichén Itzá, the No. 7 seed next to Badosa’s name will hardly matter given she beat both No. 1 seed Sabalenka and No. 5 seed Swiatek in first-time meetings this summer on outdoor hard courts in Cincinnati and Tokyo, respectively (she has never faced No. 4 seed Sakkari). Swiatek may be the underdog of this quartet, having also fallen at the hands of Sakkari twice in 2021. She’s yet to meet Sabalenka, who holds a 4-1 edge over Sakkari.

In Group Teotihuacán, there’s a 50 percent chance a past semifinalist gets through. Third-seeded Pliskova owns a commanding 8-2 advantage, including two WTA Finals victories, on her fellow former world No. 1 Muguruza. Both are joined by No. 2 seed Krejcikova and No. 8 seed Kontaveit, players Pliskova has combined to go 5-0 against (all are pre-August 2019). Kontaveit has split her four clashes with No. 6 seed Muguruza and never battled Krejcikova. This year’s Roland Garros queen has bested Muguruza in two of their three encounters—all 2021 hard-court contests—and based on how the pair’s night session in Flushing Meadows ended, this next installment should be watched with plenty of interest.

Much like Indian Wells, predicting the eventual trophy hoister is a proverbial toss-up. Two key differences this week: a significant reduction in the number of options for forecasters to mull over, and the 5,000 foot-plus elevation Guadalajara presents. Altitude is a considerable wild-card variable in play. If there is one piece of advice to impart when it comes to 2021 and tennis, it’s the definition of unexpected continues to be challenged. So embrace the chaos—and enjoy some tequila while at it.