Jessica Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka won their opening skirmishes at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals on Day 1 of the season-ending championships, setting aside the grumbles of the prior week to focus on the on-court battles.
It's good to reach one of your goals, but you still need to work hard and bring your best tennis. When you reach number one I feel, like, you have this huge target on your back. Aryna Sabalenka
Two groups of 4 players are competing in round-robin matches through until Friday, with the two top finishers in each group advancing to Saturday’s semi-finals. The final will be played next Sunday.
Pegula, the World No 5 from the USA, won 10 of the last 12 games to beat Kazakh Elena Rybakina, 7-5 6-2, in the opening match on Sunday in Mexico.
Neither had won before at the WTA Finals, while the victory brought up a tour-leading 42nd win on hard courts this season for Pegula, who got past Rybakina, ranked 4, in 83 minutes.
“I feel like she just made a couple careless errors, and I was able to take advantage of it at the right time, and ride that momentum all the way through the second set,” Pegula said. “I thought I was returning really well, reading her serve a little bit more, and was able to play some good tennis.”
Pegula went 0-3 in Fort Worth, Texas, a year ago, while Rybakina, the 2023 Australian Open finalist and former Wimbledon champion, is making her debut appearance at the event for the top 8 players in the world, having missed out in 2022 when no points were allocated for Wimbledon.
Top-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, who lost the 2022 WTA Finals title match to France’s Caroline Garcia, collected the first 11 games to overwhelm Maria Sakkari, 6-0 6-1, in Sunday’s other singles match.
Sabalenka is trying to become the first player since Serena Williams in 2013 and 2014 to reach the final in consecutive years.
Two of Sakkari’s 3 wins in 9 meetings with Sabalenka had come in previous editions of the season finale, but the Greek World No 9 was no match for her this time round.
Sabalenka converted 5 out of 9 break point chances, and won 11 games in a row to finish in 74 minutes.
“She’s an amazing player. She’s always fighting for every ball,” Sabalenka said. “I knew no matter what the score is that she would fight for it. That’s what makes her a really tough opponent.
“You know, against Maria, any time she can come back. You give her a little bit and she’ll take that and keep fighting. I just tried to stay in the moment.”
Sakkari moved into the field when French Open finalist Karolina Muchova withdrew with an injured right wrist.
Playing in the Bacalar Group, 29-year old Pegula is also playing the doubles alongside Coco Gauff, and the pair are hoping to make amends for a a collective 0-9 performance last year in Fort Worth.
“I think we feel better this year,” Pegula told reporters, admitting she had been burnt out coming in to the WTA Finals last year. “I have mentally prepared myself a little bit better on what to expect coming in here.
“Hopefully I can use that as better preparation this year mentally and physically and have some better results.”
Playing outdoors on her favoured hard courts, Pegula impressed against the big-hitting Rybakina, who, admittedly, was just a touch off and finished with 35 unforced errors, against only 12 winners, while the American produced a tidier 12 winners to her 16 miscues.
Rybakina was serving for the first set at 5-3, when she began to unravel, and Pegula broke her, as a backhand soared long, and then went on to finish with a flourish, winning 4 straight games.
“She made a couple of errors, a couple of loose points and I was able to jump on it and find my momentum,” Pegula told reporters afterwards. “I started finding my rhythm a little bit with the court and the balls. I just took advantage of the opportunity that I had.”
She broke Rybakina in the opening game of the second set, adding the 5th and 7th to her tally, and has now won 3 of 4 career matches against the Kazakh, reversing a semi-final loss back in March in the Miami Open.
“If I had gone 0-7, I’d be 0-7 — there’s nothing I could do about it,” Pegula said. “It would have been just another loss.
“Last year, you’re losing to the best girls in the world at that point, you’d rather be losing to them than the worst eight players in the world. You’re excited and you want to do well, but sometimes you’ve got to look at the other side.”
Playing with Gauff in the doubles, Pegula was unable to carry her winning way into her opening match against the No 7 seeds, Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski & Erin Routliffe from New Zealand, who notched an upset on Day 1, battling to a 7-6(2) 6-3 win over the top seeds.
The reigning US Open champions fought back from 1-4 down in the first set on their way to the 1 hour and 25-minute win.
Dabrowski & Routliffe, who only started their partnership this summer, have now won 13 of their last 16 matches.
Gauff & Pegula, who are co-ranked No.1 in the WTA doubles rankings, got off to a flying start on Sunday night, and Gauff served for the first set at 5-4, but a double-fault handed Dabrowski & Routliffe their first break point of the match, which they converted to level the set at 5-5.
Pegula saved 3 consecutive break points to hold for 6-5, but Routliffe countered by holding to set up the tiebreak in which the Kiwi’s pin-point net play carried them on to take the last 4 points in a row.
Dabrowski & Routliffe built a dominant 5-1 lead in the second, but Gauff & Pegula charged back, reaching 5-3 and holding 3 break points on Routliffe’s serve, but the 7th seeds held on to clinch the win, finishing with a winning Dabrowski backhand.
Earlier, Sabalenka, who overtook 4-time major champion Swiatek and captured the top ranking after the US Open, could retain the No 1 spot if she goes undefeated in round-robin play, or can make the final.
She looked in imperious form against Sakkari, needing just 74 minutes and dropping only 1 game against the Greek.
A runner-up last year, Sabalenka has a chance to become the first player to make back-to-back finals at the year-end championships since Serena Williams in 2013 and 2014, while she is also working to hold off Swiatek to finish the year as the 16th WTA year-end No 1.
“You don’t have to overdo things here in the Finals,” Sabalenka said ahead of the tournament. “It’s just another tournament, yet in a different format. You just have to focus on yourself and try to do your best.”
She certainly played her opener with no signs of nerves or pressure, saving 4 break points to hold for 3-0, and pocketing the first set in just 37 minutes as she handed Sakkari her first bagel of the season.
“I wasn’t nervous before the match to be deadly honest, I was pretty relaxed,” Sakkari said. “I just haven’t been feeling my game so well, maybe because I had too much time off after China and not too many days on the court since I came back. Maybe that’s a factor. I don’t know.”
“I think it was pretty obvious that I was not feeling my game, not feeling comfortable out there. Just a very, very bad day in the office, and hopefully it’s gonna get better for Tuesday.”
The WTA announced in September that it would be holding the WTA Finals in Cancun under a one-year agreement.
Some players raised concerns that the temporary $9 million show court was not ready for practice until the day before the beginning of competition.
“This is something … I’m not happy with. I’m pretty sure the rest of the players also [are] not happy,” Sabalenka said. “It’s not great. I mean, usually we need like three to four days to adjust to the conditions.
“I hope that next year, WTA will do a better job.”
Sabalenka continued her contained aggression through the second set to earn herself 3 match points at 6-0, 5-0, but Sakkari avoided the double bagel by holding onto her serve to get herself onto the board.
Undeterred, the Belarusian held to love and punctuated her win with her 4th ace of the night to move her to the top of the Bacalar Group at 1-0 alongside Pegula.
“The score looks really easy, but it wasn’t an easy match,” Sabalenka said. “I’m super happy to win this match, especially against Maria, someone who was such a big fighter and all these tough matches against her.”
The win edged her one step closer to finishing the year atop of the WTA Rankings as she is now only 2 more round-robin match wins away from securing top spot.
If she does end up losing one of her two remaining matches in the Bacalar Group, then she will need to reach the final to ensure her status as the year-end No 1, although Swiatek will then need to win the title.
Sabalenka picked up 250 points on Sunday – 125 for playing and 125 for the win – and moved to 8,675 in the Live Race to open an 880-point lead over her rival.
“It’s good to reach one of your goals, but you still need to work hard and bring your best tennis,” Sabalenka said. “When you reach number one I feel, like, you have this huge target on your back.”
Attention now switches to the Chetumal Group on Monday when Swiatek kicks off her campaign against Marketa Vondrousova, while Gauff takes on Ons Jabeur.
Earlier on Sunday, No 3 seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara got their WTA Finals doubles campaign underway by defeating American Desirae Krawczyk & Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, the 5th seeds, 7-5 6-2, prevailing in an hour and 36 minutes, and saving 10 of 12 break points in the process.
A powerful Shibahara return gave her team an early 3-1 lead, but a pair of Schuurs volley winners pulled her and Krawczyk back on serve at 5-5.
Aoyama & Shibahara, though, reached set point on Schuurs’s serve at 6-5, which they converted with a winning volley by Aoyama.
Deep returns by the Japanese pair, some landing square on the baseline, brought them to a 4-1 advantage in the second set, and, at 5-2, they broke serve again, with a deft Shibahara crosscourt winner wrapping up the win.