Iga Swiatek battled past Marketa Vondrousova to open her account at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun in Mexico on Monday, coming from 2-5 down to win 7-6(3) 6-0, while Coco Gauff breezed past Ons Jabeur, 6-0 6-1, to place them as joint leaders in the Chetumal Group.
After the ball change, I felt, like, I was playing in a better rhythm. Maybe that was something that also helped me switch the mindset a little bit. I also thought, even if the set is going to go wrong, I can come back in the second. Iga Świątek
Swiatek had to contend with a steadier opponent and difficult court conditions but found her way through to keep pace with Aryna Sabalenka in their contest for the year-end World No 1 spot.
“Even in the first part of the match I wasn’t feeling like I was playing bad,” Swiatek said. “I just felt, like, I was making mistakes on the last shots within the rally.
“I felt that there was, for sure, room for improvement, but I didn’t need to change a lot. So I just wanted to be more precise and more solid, not play risky.”
In the face of Swiatek’s resilience, Vondrousova, who is making her WTA finals debut, found her lead slipping away before fading as the Pole took the last 4 games of the first set, the tiebreak and then all 6 games of the second to deliver her 21st bagel of the season.
“I was 5-2 up and she started to play better,” Vondrousova said. “She didn’t give me much of a chance after. The second set, she was playing really amazing, there was nothing much to do.”
22-year old Swiatek improved to 7-0 against left-handers this year, winning all 14 sets.
Under the lights, 19-year old Gauff opened her campaign by crushing Jabeur in 57 minutes in a match that was delayed at 1-0 in the second set due to a rain storm, but the American remained in charge on resumption, and notched up her 50th win of the season.
Despite winning 23 of her last 25 matches, Gauff announced that her coach Pere Rebe, who was hired 6 months ago just before Brad Gilbert came on board, has been released.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t my decision,” Gauff said of the coaching change. “But we had to end the partnership.
“If it was up to me, I would have loved to have him here. But, you know, things happen. Life happens. So no bad terms on our end.
“Sometimes people think it’s bigger than what it is. But some things just didn’t work out and that’s all.
“I still think that he was a great guy. And, obviously, he did amazing things for me personally, and also for my game. So I’m sure he’s going to be successful in his next step.”
Gauff will meet Swiatek next, on Wednesday.
The Pole looked somewhat out of sorts to find herself trailing 2-5 against Vondrousova, the reigning Wimbledon champion, spraying uncustomary errors and coming out second-best in many of the rallies, but she steadied herself when it mattered.
Finding her range and her rhythm, Swiatek smothered the Czech’s hopes, whose leftie serve deserted her, and she is now 3-0 against Vondrousova.
Swiatek coughed up 3 double-faults, lost 15 of 26 points, and was broken 3 times to fall behind, with her frustration visibly growing, but a couple of double-faults from Vondrousova was all the Pole needed to rebound, and she went on to win 12 of the next 15 points.
The critical shot was a stunning backhand winner down the line to level at 5-5 after the longest and best rally of the match.
Although Vondrousova managed to take things into a tiebreak, in which she won the first 2 points, employing her drop-shot effectively, Swiatek roared back to win 7 of the last 8 points, and was gifted the set by another Czech double-fault, after 64 minutes.
“After the ball change, I felt, like, I was playing in a better rhythm,” Swiatek said. “Maybe that was something that also helped me switch the mindset a little bit.
“I also thought, even if the set is going to go wrong, I can come back in the second.”
It was at 3-all in the breaker when Swiatek took over for good, smacking a big forehand winner, collecting a service winner, and striking her first ace of the evening, sliced wide, to get to set point, before Vondrousova double-faulted to end it.
Swiatek wound up breaking Vondrousova 6 times and finished with 19 winners to 22 unforced errors, while the Czech made only 6 winners offset by her 23 miscues.
Both Swiatek and Vondrousova later joined the chorus of competitors at the WTA Finals criticising the playing conditions at the season-ending championships, which are being played on a temporary outdoor hard court in Cancun, built, apparently, on top of a golf course.
It seems there is no solid footing and the balls bounce erratically, while the surface wasn’t ready early enough to allow for sufficient practice time ahead of match play.
The WTA has defended the court as meeting its ‘strict performance standard’.
“Obviously, it’s not a positive thing for any of us,” Swiatek said after defeating Vondrousova. “For sure, it’s not comfortable — and the fact [is] that we also didn’t have time to practice on this court.”
Vondrousova was more blunt, saying: “The court is, honestly, very bad. … It’s very crazy.”
She then added that it’s ‘like bad clay or grass courts’ and ‘I don’t think this court is very good for the WTA Finals, to be honest’.
Later on Monday evening, US Open champion Gauff demolished Jabeur in her first group stage outing.
”I got a marriage proposal yesterday, so I’m feeling the love here in Cancun,” Gauff said with a laugh after the swift match, thanking the crowd who showed up despite the weather. “I honestly wasn’t expecting as much support today … I appreciate you guys and, hopefully, we can get a lot more people to come as the week continues.”
The 19 year old’s first victory at the WTA finals came after a winless campaign last year, and it made her the first American teenager to win a match at the season-ending event since Venus Williams in 1999.
In September, Gauff became the first teenager to win the US Open since Serena Williams in 1999.
Gauff maintained her focus through the match, and did not allow the rain interruption to derail her.
“Sometimes you win a couple games and the rain delay happens and the match can completely turn around,” she said. “But I was able to stay steady the whole time.”
She quickly grabbed the first 7 games against Jabeur, using a 9-0 advantage in winners to help accumulate a 29-10 edge in points, before play was halted because of the weather.
When they resumed, Jabeur held serve to claim her first game and make it 1-all in the second set, but she could not land another.
After one shanked forehand in the second set, the Tunisian 6th seed spiked her racket off the temporary outdoor hard court that has drawn so much criticism.
Later, she dumped a backhand return into the net and bounced her racket again.
It wasn’t until the last game that Jabeur finally earned a break point, the first of 3 in all, but Gauff saved them all and then converted her 4th match point when the Tunisian sent a forehand wide.
“Ons is a great player, so I felt really unsteady the whole match, even though it didn’t [look] like that,” Gauff said. “But I’m just happy to finally get a win here in this event.”
As for Jabeur, she said afterwards: “She played really well. She played a correct match, didn’t make a lot of mistakes. On my part, I did make a lot of mistakes.”
No 3rd seed Gauff will face 2nd-seeded Swiatek next in what will be the 10th career meeting between the two young champions.
In the doubles, Australia’s Storm Hunter & Elise Mertens from Belgium, the No 2 seeds, started their GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun campaign with a 6-4 6-2 win over No 3 seeds Shuko Aoyama & Ena Shibahara from Japan in the Maya Ka’an Group.
Hunter & Mertens, who won WTA 1000 titles in Rome and Guadalajara this season, took an hour and 16 minutes to win their first round-robin match of the week.
Aoyama & Shibahara started the match ahead, breaking for a 3-1 lead in the opening set, but a winning volley by Hunter put her team back on serve in the next game.
Later in the set, Hunter & Mertens broke the all-Japanese pair to love to lead 5-4, before Mertens then served out the set to love as the No 2 seeds swept the last 9 points of the set.
Hunter & Mertens eased through the second set without losing their serves, and finished the match with a 68% success rate returning the Aoyama & Shibahara second serves.
Mertens has now won her last 6 doubles matches at the WTA Finals.
Last year, she and Veronika Kudermetova went an undefeated 5-0 en route to the title, while he also was the runner-up at the 2021 WTA Finals alongside Hsieh Su-wei.