Caroline Garcia and Aryna Sabalenka will contest the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, on Monday despite both having lost in the group stages, but then making the most of their second chances in the semi-finals, beating Maria Sakkari and Iga Swiatek respectively.
I gave her a lot of easy matches this season, and I think that’s enough for her. I wanted to make sure that, every time she plays against me, she knows she has to work hard to get a win. It was only because of this thinking that I was able to play such an amazing level tonight. Aryna Sabalenka
Such are the vagaries of a round robin competition in which, this week, Swiatek, the World No 1, and Sakkari, ranked 5, both came through without loss of a match, yet a set… until the Last 4.
The biggest shock, of course, was Sabalenka toppling Swiatek and scoring her first victory over the 21-year old Pole in 5 prior meetings as she notched up an emphatic 6-2 2-6 6-1 win.
“The only thing I had in my mind was just make her work,” Sabalenka said. “And that’s it. It’s only because of that I was able to show unbelievable tennis tonight and get this win.”
By her own admission, the Belarusian, seeded 7, was astonished that she had qualified for the finals at all but she has found form in the latter part of the year and is capping it all off with a massive upset.
Swiatek and Sabalenka are not a great match-up and their matches tend to be scrappy affairs.
There is also the matter of the war in Ukraine that is endorsed by Belarus, and it is a matter of record that Swiatek has dedicated much effort into drumming up humanitarian support for the stricken country.
This loss will have truly hurt.
With the first 2 sets split, Sabalenka broke for a 3-1 lead in the decider but the much-anticipated come-back from Swiatek did not happen as the Belarusian broke again and served out the match.
Sabalenka’s ‘hit-&-miss’ game is difficult to play at best, offering little in terms of rhythm, but when the hits outweigh the misses, she is impossible to get past, forcing her opponent into uncharacteristic errors.
It took 2 hour and 7 minutes for Sabalenka to stun the World No 1 out of contention for the title many felt was destined for the Pole’s hands.
“I gave her a lot of easy matches this season, and I think that’s enough for her,” Sabalenka added. “I wanted to make sure that, every time she plays against me, she knows she has to work hard to get a win.
“It was only because of this thinking that I was able to play such an amazing level tonight.”
Sabalenka will now meet Garcia for the WTA Finals singles trophy, which will break their currently deadlocked 2-2 head-to-head.
With their semi-final wins, both Sabalenka and Garcia will finish the year inside the Top 5.
Swiatek’s incredible year comes to a close with a 67-9 win-loss record, and 8 singles titles, but her 15-match winning streak against her fellow Top 10 players ended with her loss to Sabalenka.
After saving 2 break points in the opening game, Sabalenka took charge with 2 early breaks for 4-1 and cruised to a one-set lead, converting 3 of her 5 break points and aided by 5 aces, which offset her 5 double-faults.
In the second set, Swiatek cleaned up her act and came out firing with her forehand, leaping to a 4-0 lead, and she levelled match with a backhand winner down the line on her first set point.
Sabalenka regained control in the third, going up an early break by using her fierce forehand to lead 3-1, and rolling on from there as Swiatek visibly unravelled.
The Belarusian slammed down 2 huge serves on the last 2 points of the match to score the shock upset.
Earlier in the day Garcia booked a spot in the championship match with a 6-3 6-2 victory over Greece’s Sakkari, producing a 21-8 edge in winners during their semi-final match while continuing her aggressive play.
A day after she rallied from a set down to beat Daria Kasatkina in a gruelling winner-take-all contest in the Tracy Austin Group, Garcia showed little sign of fatigue as she eased past Sakkari in just 75 minutes.
At 29, Garcia becomes the oldest player to reach the final since Venus Williams in 2017.
“This morning, obviously, the legs were a bit heavy, but I was just so excited, the emotion and the win yesterday to be playing a semi-final today of the WTA Finals,” said Garcia in her on-court interview. “I was feeling very pumped.
“This morning I talked to my physio [Laura Legoupil] and I said, ‘I hope it’s going to last long enough to go to the match.'”
The Frenchwoman held a 6-0 advantage in aces and converted 4 of 5 break points, while Sakkari recorded just 8 winners and made 19 unforced errors to Garcia’s 17 miscues.
Garcia was ranked as high as No 4 in the world in 2017 but her career took a downturn due to injuries.
She played her way into this season’s WTA Finals by winning 3 tournaments, including the 1000-level Western & Southern Open near Cincinnati, and making a stirring run to the US Open semi-finals.
“You try to learn from everything,” Garcia said after Sunday’s win. “We got some tough experiences the last couple years, but I’ve got a big team behind me and supporting me, staying positive even when I was negative about myself.
“It’s definitely a great year. A lot of things happened that I didn’t think would happen.”
In the doubles, the two unbeaten teams at the WTA Finals will square off in the WTA Finals championship match on Monday, with defending champions Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova from Czech Republic facing down Russian Veronika Kudermetova & Elise Mertens from Belgium, the No 4 seeds.
Krejcikova & Siniakova advanced to their 3rd WTA Finals championship match after defeating 5th seeds Ukraine’s Lyudmyla Kichenok & Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia, 7-6(5) 6-2 in Sunday’s semi-final.
Already champions at the three majors they contested, Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open, Krejcikova & Siniakova are now 22-0 across this year’s Slams and WTA Finals, and have lost just 3 matches all season.
The Czechs take on Kudermetova & Mertens, who have lost just one set in their WTA Finals team debut, and eased past American Desirae Krawczyk & Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, 6-1 6-1 in just 56 minutes.
The victory means 3 of the 4 players in Monday’s final will have also faced off in last year’s final in Guadalajara, where Krejcikova & Siniakova bested Mertens & Hsieh Su-Wei for the title.