Jessica Pegula, the dark horse in the pack, has proven herself to be the front-runner of the Bacalar Group by winning all 3 of her round-robin matches, after topping off Maria Sakkari, 6-3 6-2, at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun on Thursday night.
“It’s so tough to play in these conditions. You’re trying to do your best and as soon as you get some momentum, you still feel like you could lose it. If you just stop moving your feet for one second, you get one unlucky shot. So you’re very on edge. It was crazy out there today. Jessica Pegula
A year after going 0-3 at the season-ending championship in Fort Worth, Pegula heads into Saturday’s semi-finals with a 100% clean slate, extending her overall winning streak to 8 matches, including the title at the Korean Open last month.
“Getting through 3-0 is really, kind of, a cool accomplishment,” Pegula said. “Especially coming off of last year, where it was the opposite.”
Sakkari, the World No 9, who qualified for the 8-player field when Karolina Muchova withdrew with an injured right wrist, has now gone down 0-3 in the group.
Pegula, the oldest player in the field at 29, had already clinched her spot in Saturday’s semi-finals and Sakkari was already out of contention before the match on the Mexican outdoor hard courts, which tidied things up.
The American seized control early on to lead 4-1 in the opening set, which her on the way to a dominant win in the difficult, windy conditions by the beach.
She took full advantage of the 35 unforced errors made by her Greek opponent, that included 8 double faults, all of which set her on her way to reaching the Last 4 without dropping a set.
“It’s so tough to play in these conditions,” she said later. “You’re trying to do your best and as soon as you get some momentum, you still feel like you could lose it.
“If you just stop moving your feet for one second, you get one unlucky shot. So you’re very on edge. It was crazy out there today.”
Pegula made fewer winners than Sakkari on Thursday, 12 to 7, and she made roughly half as many unforced errors than the Greek, 35 to 18 miscues.
“That’s not the way I wanted my season to end,” Sakkari admitted. “Physically and mentally, I was paying a toll for how much I travelled, how much I played, and how emotional this season was.”
Pegula’s brisk run through her group matches included an upset of Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 1, who still faces a do-or-die contest with 4th-ranked Elena Rybakina for the second semi-final berth from the group.
The two met in January in the Australian Open final, where Sabalenka won in 3 sets for her first major title, before the 24-year-old from Kazakhstan beat her in the Indian Wells final in March, and, again, more recently, in the quarter-finals at Beijing.
Sabalenka, who is one of several players who have complained about the condition of the court at this week’s Finals, is not only gunning for the prestigious title, but also on landing the year-end No 1 ranking, which could still be claimed by Iga Swiatek if the 22-year old Pole can win the title here in Cancun.
Unfortunately, the match between Sabalenka and Rybakina was suspended in the second set because of rain.
Sabalenka had taken the opening set 6-1, but Rybakina was about to serve for the second while ahead 5-3 when the latest in a series of showers interrupted play at 11.30 pm local time.
After waiting to see whether the weather would clear up, organisers decided to resume the match on Friday afternoon to determine who will head into the semi-finals, while the loser will be eliminated.
There were a half-dozen rain delays that halted action for around 2 hours in total, prompting one spectator to hold up a sign reading, ‘No more rain!!!’.
The longest break lasted an hour and 10 minutes early in the second set, before the players left the court for the last time, more than 3 hours after it had begun.
The semi-finalists from the Chetumal Group will also be settled on Friday, when US Open champion Coco Gauff takes on Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova, and 4-time Grand Slam champion Swiatek meets the 3-time major runner-up, Ons Jabeur.
No matter the outcome, though, the World No 1 ranking will still belong to Sabalenka unless Swiatek can win the title.
In the doubles, Australia’s Storm Hunter & Elise Mertens from Belgium, the No 2 seeds, finished group play with a perfect 3-0 record after dispatching No 5 seeds Desirae Krawczyk & Demi Schuurs, from the USA and Netherlans respectively, 6-2 6-3, on Thursday.
Hunter & Mertens’s undefeated run through round-robin play means they will finish at the top of the Maya Ka’an Group, and they have qualified for the knockout semi-finals this weekend.
Meanwhile, the second place in the Maya Ka’an Group is still up for grabs, after the No 8 seeds, American Nicole Melichar-Martinez & Ellen Perez from Australia notched their first win of the week with a 4-6 6-2 [10-6] victory over Japanese 3rd seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara earlier on Thursday.
Hunter & Mertens prevailed over Krawczyk & Schuurs after 1 hour and 13 minutes of sterling play, finishing with 18 winners to their opponents’ 8, while converting 6 of 9 break points in the match.
Defending champion Mertens continues her superb run of form at the WTA Finals, having now won her last 8 matches at the event, after going up 5-0 last year while paired with Veronika Kudermetova in follow up of a finalist run in 2021 alongside Hsieh Su-wei.
As for Melichar-Martinez & Perez, they have seen all of their scheduled matches affected by rain this week, and Thursday’s clash was no exception, but the American-Australian pair survived one lengthy rain break and another shorter one to capture the win after an hour and 32 minutes of actual play.
The teams got through only 2 games before rain interrupted the match for nearly 2 hours, and, on resumption, Aoyama & Shibahara took the first set, where half the games went against serve, but Melichar-Martinez & Perez turned around the momentum, sweeping through the second to reach the decisive match-tiebreak.
In the 10-point breaker, which had a 3 minute pause for a shower, stellar volleys by Melichar-Martinez & Perez led them to a commanding 6-2 advantage.
While the Japanese pair pulled back into contention by reaching 6-5, Melichar-Martinez & Perez held firm, winning 4 of the next 5 points to take the win, and exacting revenge for the earlier loss to Aoyama & Shibahara at Indian Wells this year.