Coming into their round-robin match in Shenzhen on Wednesday, the Ukrainian and the Romanian were 4-4. Each woman is roughly the same size, and hits with about the same amount of pace. Each is a dogged runner and cussed competitor, and neither has the raw power to get the ball past the other from the baseline with one swing of the racquet. Each possesses a solid first serve, and a second serve that can be attacked. All of which means that their matches typically feature exhausting rallies, multiple service breaks, and an inordinate number of tactical adjustments, in the hopes that one of them will provide a tiny, decisive edge. Throw in the fact that Halep and Svitolina were wearing the same maroon-and-white Nike outfit in Shenzhen, and it felt like we were watching mirror images on each side of the net.
They had met twice this year, and, not surprisingly, had split those two matches—Svitolina won in three sets in Doha, Halep won in a one-sided straight-setter at Wimbledon. In Shenzhen, the momentum came and went in waves, and the slow hard court gave them plenty of time to track each other’s shots down. Halep tried to loop the ball high and push Svitolina back, while Svitolina tried to open the up the court with sharp-angled crosscourt backhands.
When it came to the end of each set, though, it was Svitolina who was able to clear her head, press the issue, and pull ahead, and it was Halep who chose the wrong shot at the wrong time. At 5-6 in the first set, Svitolina hit an excellent crosscourt backhand and an even better down-the-line forehand return, and broke at love. At 3-4 in the second set, she stepped forward again, and again broke at love. During one changeover, Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill, encouraged her to try the drop shot, and if she missed, it was “on me”—in other words, she was free to blame him for her error. Halep may have taken that advice a little too literally; late in the second set, she tried two drop shots, put them in the net both times, and shot a look at Cahill.
“It was an extremely physical match, and we were chasing lot of balls and using lots of energy on the court,” Svitolina said after her 7-5, 6-3 win. “I was playing very solid today, and my defense was vey good, and I’m very happy about that.”
Svitolina and Halep had one more thing in common on Wednesday: Their coaches—Cahill for Halep, Andrew Bettles for Svitolina—gave them energetic pep talks in the middle of each set. We know about Cahill, and the success that he has had with Halep (drop shots aside), but I also liked the way Bettles talked to Svitolina today. Rather than rattle off a long list of hard-to-remember suggestions, he took his time with each one, emphasized his point, waited until he felt like she had heard him and understood him, and then moved on. Svitolina obviously got the message and profited from it; after Bettles’ second visit, she broke and held for the match in quick succession.
Svitolina, who was 5-0 in Shenzhen last year, has won her first two matches this week in straight sets, which means she becomes the first player to qualify for the semifinals. What is it about this tournament that she likes?
“I was expecting tough matches here when I was arriving,” Svitolina said when she was asked that question today. “I had to stay really focused on each match.”
For a woman who lost in the first round seven times this season, it seems that knowing there are no easy outs in the WTA Finals helps bring out her best right from the start; she’s 13-2 in tournament finals for her career, and every match in Shenzhen feels like one. Today Svitolina’s focus helped her look across the net at her mirror image in Halep, and put just enough between them to walk away with a win.