Where things stand at an injury-plagued but still promising WTA Finals

Where things stand at an injury-plagued but still promising WTA Finals

Osaka and Andreescu, two of the year's Grand Slam champions, have pulled out, and an alternate retired on Thursday. But the semifinal round is nonetheless shaping up to be must-see.

Tennis fans following the WTA Finals this week were hoping to witness a fitting conclusion to a compelling season for the top eight players in the world. Four different women were victorious at the majors this season, and each of these eminent performers—Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu—came to Shenzhen, China in search of another prestigious prize. But Osaka had to pull out of the tournament after one match with a shoulder injury, and Andreescu withdrew today after injuring her knee in her second match, against Karolina Pliskova.

As if that kind of disruption was not disappointing enough for both the players and the spectators, Switzerland’s stylish Belinda Bencic was leading Kiki Bertens, 7-5, 1-0, in her last round-robin clash when the Dutchwoman had to retire after a visit with the tournament physio. She was already the first alternate in Red Group, replacing Osaka. Bertens had struck back boldly against Barty in her first appearance, winning that contest in three sets.

When she took a 5-3 first set lead against Bencic today, it seemed entirely possible that Bertens was on her way to another victory. But Bencic fought back with her customary guile to win four games in a row for the set. The Swiss held in the first game of the second set, but at the ensuing changeover Bertens was clearly not feeling well.

Barty, meanwhile, raised her record in the Red Group to 2-1 with a decisive 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Petra Kvitova. She thus finishes first in the group, sealing a place in the semifinals on Saturday. By virtue of her abbreviated win over Bertens, Bencic also moves on to the semifinals.

Screengrab of Red Group standings from shiseidowtafinalsshenzhen.com

The 22-year-old Bencic has been enjoying the finest season of her career. Never before has she concluded a year among the Top 10. This is her first appearance at the WTA Finals. Clearly, she is worthy of her place in the penultimate round. But she had to work her way out of a precarious corner to take the initiative away from Bertens in a high-caliber opening set. With the score locked at 2-2, Bertens broke Bencic with a guileful play, coaxing an error with a well-executed sliced backhand. She held at love for 4-2 with an ace out wide in the ad court. After both players held in the next two games, Bencic served at 3-5 to stay in the set. She held on at 30 with a beautifully struck backhand winner down the line that was set up by a fine wide serve.

Bertens served for the set at 5-4, but Bencic played te entire game purposefully. At 30-40, Bertens netted a backhand drop shot. That made it 5-5. Bencic held at 30 for 6-5. Serving at 30-30 in the twelfth game, Bertens made another questionable drop shot attempt, missing into the net again. Down set point, she erred again, slicing a backhand long. Bencic had turned the set around emphatically, proving in the process what a first-rate match player she is, mixing up her shots skillfully, breaking down Bertens systematically. When she took the opening game of the second set, most observers envisioned a fascinating battle ahead. That was why it was such a shame Bertens had to stop, right then and there, with her uneasy stomach.

Belinda Bencic post-match press conference:

Barty was taking on Kvitova for the seventh time; Kvitova had won their first four clashes. before Barty won hard-fought, three-set confrontations in Miami and Beijing. In Shenzhen, Barty completely outplayed an off-key Kvitova with a scintillating display of her all-court prowess. No one in the women’s game is more versatile than Barty. She can do it all on a tennis court, blending her two-handed backhand with a nifty slice off that side, serving strategically to all four corners, volleying with a conviction few of her adversaries can match. Variety is the name of her game.

From 2-2 in the first set against Kvitova, Barty had the upper hand. At break point in the fifth game, the Australian sent a low forehand pass down the line to elicit and error on the volley from the southpaw. Barty had to work inordinately hard to hold in the following game, fighting off three break points, prevailing after five deuces. On to 4-2 went Barty. Two games later, Barty held in another long game for 5-3. But serving for the set at 5-4, Barty was impenetrable. A forehand pass lifted her to 30-0. A service winner made it 40-0 and she held at 15 with another service winner. Barty had come through deservedly 6-4.

More relaxed and confident after taking an opening set that was tougher than the score would indicate, Barty broke twice on her way to 3-0 in the second set as Kvitova’s low-percentage tactics failed time and again. When Barty held from 0-30 in the fourth game—closing it out with a pair of aces—the match was as good as over. She completed a 6-4, 6-2 victory with sharp efficiency. And so the French Open champion and world No. 1 will likely be the keynote performer this weekend. She will be the favorite.

Ashleigh Barty post-match press conference:

But defending champion Elina Svitolina will not let go of her title easily. She has beaten Halep and Pliskova without the loss of a set and has won the Purple Group. Her match tomorrow against alternate Sofia Kenin is meaningless. Pliskova takes on Halep, and both players are 1-1 in round robin play. The winner of that match will become the fourth and last semifinalist on Saturday.

The hope here is that the WTA Finals can finish on a high note with no more injuries or illnesses. Andreescu played terrifically against Halep and had a match point before bowing in three sets. She hurt her knee early in her meeting with Pliskova. It would have been a boost to the event to have her still vying for the title over the weekend. Australian Open victor Osaka had been playing her best tennis since the early stages of the season during the autumn. Losing these two competitors was unfortunate to say the least. And yet, the fact remains that the three established semifinalists—Barty, Bencic and Svitolina—all have a lot to offer.

The long 2019 season in the world of women’s tennis is winding down with some warriors wounded and others pushing themselves to the hilt in pursuit of the fifth-most prestigious title in the sport. Be that at it may, the feeling grows that the last couple of days in Shenzhen will be the most memorable by far of the entire week.