Last Four Set At WTA Elite Trophy

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: WTA Elite Trophy)

ZHUHAI, October 25, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Aryna Sabalenka opposed her doubles partner, Elise Mertens, to decide the winner of the Rose Group in the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai tournament in Zhuhai, China, on Friday. While she preferred that they hadn’t been placed in the same group and, instead, face each other in the final, Sabalenka still considered her match against Mertens a nice battle.

The No. 6 seed Mertens of Belgium came in owning a 2-1 career head-to-head advantage against the No. 4 seed Sabalenka from Belarus, all played in 2018, including 1-0 on hard-court surfaces.

This time, it was Sabalenka who would prevail, needing two hours and 20 minutes to win, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

“It was a really great match today, (Mertens) played really great, and it was a really great level, and I think I was a little bit more lucky in the last few games,” said Sabalenka, as quoted by the WTA Tour website, during her post-match press conference.

“Today was a great fight, great battle and I was enjoying every second on the court.

“And I really am happy to be on the same side next week, it’s going to be good, I think, and I just can’t wait to play with her against some girls,” she added.

Sabalenka and Mertens, who are the reigning US Open doubles champions, are seeded first in the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, next week.

Meanwhile, the outcome of the other two Friday matches between No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States and No. 11 seed Karolina Muchova from the Czech Republic, won by Muchova, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, and No. 5 seed Petra Martic from Croatia versus wild card Zheng Saisai of China, won by Martic, 6-4, 6-3, would determine the winners of the Camellia Group and Orchid Group, respectively, that rounded out the semifinal lineup for the weekend. Or would it?

Coming into Friday’s action, both Kenin and Muchova were tied with 1-0 win-loss records in the Camellia Group, meaning the winner would advance to the semifinals. For the second straight day, Muchova, who was the last qualifier into the Elite Trophy field, was on court for more than two hours. At times she appeared tired, but her determination lifted her over Kenin to reach the last four. Muchova outpointed Kenin 91-77, winning more points on both her serve and return than her opponent.

Meanwhile, Zheng needed only to capture seven games – win or lose – against Martic to advance to the semifinals, and Martic had to defeat Zheng and do it by losing six games or fewer. What happened was Zheng won exactly seven games in her Orchid Group showdown. Down a break 2-4 in the second set against Martic after losing the opener, Zheng held her serve by winning game point at the net on a series of dazzling back-and-forth volleys. Then, Martic went on to close out the match win with a hold and another break of Zheng. But it was too little two late for the Croatian, who earlier this year won her first WTA Tour title at Istanbul on clay and more recently was a finalist at Zhengzhou. There were mixed emotions on her face at the end of the match while Zheng showed a sigh of relief knowing she had advanced despite losing to Martic and being outpointed 68-54.

“This is the first time I have this experience. Actually, I knew if I win a set, I for sure would be in, but I don’t know exactly how many games,” Zheng said, quoted by the WTA Tour website.

“I was pretty tight because I knew I don’t need to win the match, so I was like scared a little bit. It’s really the first time the feeling how I played — very nervous.”

Although both players finished with 1-1 round-robin records and won an equal number of sets (two each), Zheng won the tiebreaker, which came down to who had the better win-loss record for total games played (Zheng 19-18, Martic 19-19).

Regardless of who reached the last four from the three Friday matches, along with top seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who won the Azalea Group on Thursday, each would be a first-time semifinalist in Zhuhai.

Around the WTA Elite Trophy

With group play completed, Saturday’s semifinal lineup is set. The first semifinal pits No. 1 seed Kiki Bertens against wild card/12th seed Zheng Saisai not before 3 p.m. local time, followed by No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka versus No. 11 seed Karolina Muchova not before 4:30 p.m. local time. The winners play in Sunday’s final.

“I just watched a couple of points from today’s match and I would like to say that (Muchova is) a great player and it’s going to be a tough match, and I’m just looking forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Sabalenka. “We never (played) each other and I didn’t speak with my coach yet about her, so we’ll see. But anyway, she’s a great one, she’s a great player.”

By the numbers

Aryna Sabalenka has a remarkable 31-7 career win-loss record in tour-level matches in China. She has won three of her four WTA singles titles in China, and has made the quarterfinals or better in eight of her 10 tour-level appearances on Chinese soil, too.

WTA Finals Shenzhen draw revealed

Two groups were drawn for the inaugural Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen on Friday and the year’s four Grand Slam champions were evenly split.

Top seed and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty headlines the Red Group. She’s joined by by Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Belinda Bencic, who won titles at Dubai and Moscow this season.

No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, who topped the WTA by winning four singles titles in 2019, heads the Purple Group, drawn with US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and defending WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina, who reached five semifinals this year including Wimbledon and the US Open.

Kvitova and Svitolina are the only former WTA Finals titlists in the field while Andreescu and Bencic are making their debuts at the WTA’s season-ending tournament.

Round-robin play begins on Sunday in Shenzhen with the Red Group: Osaka vs. Kvitova and Barty vs. Bencic. On Monday, the Purple Group features Pliskova vs. Svitolina and Andreescu vs. Halep.