The season-ending WTA Finals got underway at the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, on Monday, to a scattering of fans who witnessed some surprises when Maria Sakkari edged out Jessica Pegula with a 7-6(6) 7-6(4) win, and Aryna Sabalenka upset Ons Jabeur, 3-6 7-6(5) 7-5, to open the round-robin singles play in the Nancy Richey Group.
It's never easy against Jess. If you're passive, Jess is just going to make you run. She's going to hit the ball very hard, and it's over. Maria Sakkari
Earlier in the day, Jabeur, dubbed the Minister of Happiness in Tunisia, delivered some surprises of her own on Halloween, showering scariness on both Iga Swiatek and Caroline Garcia by jumping out from behind a screen wearing a skeleton mask and a black cape.
“This is the worst!” the World No 1 from Poland screamed, while Garcia’s reaction had to be bleeped out.
Jabeur has not played on the tour since her home event in Tunisia a few weeks, and perhaps suffered a little rustiness alongside some nerves as Sabalenka got the jump on her in the night session.
The Belarusian came back to beat the two-time Grand Slam runner-up after being just 2 points away from defeat.
Jabeur, the World No 2, led 5-3 in the second set tiebreak, but Sabalenka grabbed the next 4 points in a row to force a third set, in which the Tunisian also held two chances to break for a 5-2 lead.
“Don’t look at the score,” Sabalenka said she had told herself. “Just keep trying!”
Somehow, she held on, breaking Jabeur to love to level the decider at 4-4, and captured the victory when Jabeur netted a forehand on the first match point.
“I think it’s the biggest win of the season for me,” Sabalenka said. “She played unbelievable and somehow another miracle happened for me, and I was able to win this match.”
Sabalenka was a semi-finalist in the WTA’s season finale last year, but has endured a disappointing 2022 campaign.
Here, the World No 7 had to dig deep to improve her record against Jabeur to 3-1.
“I didn’t feel welcome on this court,” Sabalenka said about her early struggles. “I couldn’t understand what was happening, the ball was bouncing too slow for me.
“Then, in the second set, I, kind of, calmed down and tried to think what I had to do to win this match.”
Jabeur broke Sabalenka twice as she raced through the first set, but Sabalenka rebounded to take a 4-1 lead in the second.
The Tunisian battled into the breaker, saving a set point at 5-3 in the process, but she let a 5-3 lead slip when the Belarusian blazed 3 points in a row, and, on Sabalenka’s second set point, Jabeur double-faulted to cede the set.
She took a 4-2 lead in the decider, and held 2 break points in that game, but Sabalenka recovered to close out the hold with a booming forehand, then broke to love for 4-4.
After numerous come-backs, Sabalenka took her chance at 6-5, forcing errors from Jabeur to collect her 5th break of the match, and complete the upset.
Sabalenka pulled off the win despite having 16 fewer winners and one less service break than Jabeur, but she proved the stronger on returning second serves, winning 61 percent of those points compared to Tunisian’s 51 percent success rate.
Making her second consecutive appearance at the WTA Finals, Sabalenka picks up a win in the group stage for the second straight season, having defeated Swiatek at the same stage last year before losing her two other matches to Sakkari and Paula Badosa.
“I’m just trying to enjoy every second being here, and I’m just trying to do my best and see what the last week of the season can bring,” Sabalenka said. “I was just like, ‘Keep trying, keep fighting, and make sure that if she wants to win this match, she has to do something great, not like an easy win’.
“And, I think, that’s why I put a little bit more pressure on her and, in the key moments, I was able to win it.”
A resigned Jabeur, who will meet Pegula on Wednesday under the round-robin format, lamented later: “I missed my chances.”
Pegula, the World No 3, beat Sakkari some 8 days ago in the final of the Guadalajara Open Akron, but found herself on the losing end on Monday afternoon when the Greek edged past her in two tiebreak sets across more than two hours of big-hitting baseline action in front of the very sparse crowd.
Sakkari broke into a grin as she pocketed the match in front of her parents and grandmother in what was the first time in 4½ years that the grandmother had been in the stands to see watch her play.
“She was like, ‘Wow. That was a very high-level match’,” the 27-year-old from Greece said. “She knows tennis really well, because my grandfather was a coach, then my mom was a player, so she travelled with her on the tour.
“It’s not like she’s watching her first tennis match ever. It’s very nice just to have her around.
“To be with her. To spend my time a little bit with her and my parents. It’s nice, sometimes, to [be with] people that you love and people that are very close to you and were [there] since the beginning.”
In a match of shifting momentum, Sakkari won the first two games, and Pegula took the next three.
After Sakkari broke to lead 6-5 and serve for the first set, Pegula broke right back when the Greek World No 5 fluffed a drop-shot.
“It’s never easy against Jess,” said Sakkari, who was a two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist last season but only once made it as far as the 4th-round at a major in 2022. “If you’re passive, Jess is just going to make you run. She’s going to hit the ball very hard, and it’s over.”
After pocketing the first set, Sakkari raced to a 3-0 lead in the second before the American No 1, who survived match points to win 3 times this season, broke back to trim the deficit to 3-2.
Sakkari had an opportunity to close out her first win against a Top 5 opponent this year when she held 2 match points at 6-5 in second, but she dropped a backhand into the net on the first, and Pegula delivered a fine backhand winner on the second.
In the ensuing breaker, Sakkari realised that she needed to be more aggressive on the slow court.
“Maybe I was a little bit too passive,” said Sakkari, who improved to 4-2 against the American. “She’s an amazing player. She’s very confident right now. I knew it was going to be extremely tough but I fought hard and trusted my game.”
Pegula had saved a pair of match points against her serve in the 12th game to force the breaker, the second with a stinging backhand winner, but Sakkari sealed it on her 3rd chance when the American’s effort found the net.
Two doubles matches kicked off play for both Monday’s sessions, and defending champions Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova from the Czech Republic defeated America’s Desirae Krawczyk & Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, 6-4 6-3, opened play in the Rosie Casals group.
The champions at 3 of the 4 majors this season, Krejcikova & Siniakova extended their win-loss record to 24-3 this year.
The Czech duo are bidding to become the first team to go back-to-back at the season-ending championships since Timea Babos & Kristina Mladenovic in 2018 and 2019.
After 6 holds of serve to open the match, Krejcikova & Siniakova were the first team to break to 4-3 and, despite being broken back, the Czechs broke again for 5-4 when Krejcikova served out the set.
The second was dominated by the returners, as the teams combined for 5 consecutive breaks of serve to open the set.
Krejcikova finally broke the streak, holding serve on a pitch-perfect lob to extend their lead to 4-2, and they did not relinquish it, as they broke Krawczyk & Schuurs off two missed volleys and closed out the match after 1 hour and 30 minutes.
“I think we’ve been playing solid tennis from both sides,” Krejcikova said. “The first match is always difficult.
“I expected it would be tricky and we would have a lot of tough moments. There were many [deciding points], which I think we did really well. I think that was key.”
In the match that closed out the first day’s schedule, the American pairing of Pegula & Coco Gauff were narrowly beaten by China’s Xu Yifan & Yang Zhaoxuan, 6-4 4-6 [10-7], wrapping up proceedings at a little past midnight.
In their third meeting of the season, the Chinese avenged their recent loss in San Diego to earn their second win of the season over the Americans.
Xu & Yang are the first all-Chinese team to play the WTA Finals since Yan Zi & Zheng Jie in 2006, and they came through a tight opening set that was decided by just one break.
Gauff & Pegula struggled to generate break-point chances, going 0 for 1 in the opening set.
Xu & Yang took control in the early stages of the second, grabbing an early break to lead 3-1, but the Americans battled back to take the set 6-4, and force a match tiebreak.
The Chinese withstood the momentum shift that seemed to favour the Americans, overcoming an early mini-break at 2-1 to break back and seized control for good.
Meanwhile, fans have been lashing out on social media over the sparse attendance in the mostly empty arena, with just a few hundred spectators present to watch Pegula’s match, the top ranked American.
Many have pointed to a lack of marketing and the jam-packed sporting schedule in America as issues.
The court-side radar readouts also initially displayed serve speeds in kilometres per hour, instead of the more US-friendly miles per hour, which was quickly rectified.
The event began with another hiccup as an odd delay of several minutes was caused by a questioned line call on the 3rd point of the opening doubles match.
With Krawczyk serving to Krejcikova at 30-love in the very first game, the electronic line-calling system ruled a 100 mph offering as an ace, but the Czech held a finger and thumb apart to show that she thought the ball landed out, and asked to see a replay.
No such video ever appeared, prompting a lengthy break as players and the chair umpire discussed how to handle the situation.
Eventually the point was replayed, and again won by Krawczyk, this time with a passing shot.
The $5 million indoor hard court event features the world’s 8 top finishers in women’s singles players and doubles teams with group-stage matches through Saturday, setting up semi-finals on 6 November, with the title matches on 7 November.
An unbeaten run to the singles crown is worth $1.68 million, but after making her Finals debut last year, Swiatek, the No 1 seed, knows it is a unique challenge compared to the usual WTA tournaments.
“It’s just going to be a challenge to play against the top players day-by-day, not have time to have these easier first two rounds,” said Swiatek, who starts her campaign on Tuesday. “So I’m curious if I’ll be able to play my top tennis from A to Z.”
Swiatek is the only reigning Grand Slam champion in the field, and has won 8 titles this year.
“It’s a totally different experience, so having qualified before will help a lot,” Swiatek said. “I’m curious how physically I will be able to play this tournament after such a long season.
“It will be a test for me. Last year, mentally and physically I felt I didn’t have much power.
“This year we did some things differently to have the energy at the end, so I’m curious to see if it actually worked.”