Favourite Iga Swiatek found her way past Caroline Garcia in the Tracy Austin Group at the WTA Finals on Thursday, but she had to wait until Daria Kasatkina eliminated Coco Gauff in the night match before her place in the semi-finals was secured.
It's the last tournament of the season, so I have, kind of, nothing to lose. I don't have to worry what I'm going to do next. So, yeah, for sure, I'm giving it 100%, physically and mentally. Iga Świątek
Garcia roared out of the blocks, breaking Swiatek for an early lead but the World No 1 weathered the storm and broke the Frenchwoman 4 times as she avenged a 3-set loss in Poland in July, one of just 8 this year in which she has now notched up an incredible 66 match wins.
Despite the loss in probably the best match of the tournament so far, Garcia remains in the hunt for a place in the knockout stage if she can defeat Kasatkina on Saturday.
The Russian ruled out 18-year old Gauff from semi-final contention with a 7-6(6) 6-3 win over the American World No 4.
21-year old Swiatek from Poland saved 5 of the 6 break points she faced against her French opponent, who had a clear game plan from the get-go.
“The thing is, you have to take some time away from her,” Garcia said. “Try to be aggressive, to push her out of her comfort zone, but most of the time, she does it better than you.
“She is really strong, really solid, doesn’t give you a lot of unforced errors.
“As soon as she gets a little bit more space, or more of an angle, she makes you feel you’re slower, playing bad, whatever.
“Pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Garcia concluded.
In the tight first set, Swiatek absorbed the pressure from the aggressive Garcia, explaining on court how she handled the opening barrage.
“Don’t cry?” she jokingly said. “Because, yeah, she was putting a lot of pressure and putting a lot of speed on her balls. I was ready for that.
“We had really good tactics with my coach, and they gave me the belief that I could dominate, even though she is playing really, really well.”
In fact, Swiatek proved masterful, converting 4 of her 5 break point chances against Garcia’s potent serve. The Frenchwoman now leads the WTA Tour with the most aces served at 373.
Crucially, the Pole broke to love for a 5-3 lead, and then served out what proved to be a tight opening frame on her 3rd set point when the World No 6 sent a forehand long.
Swiatek then broke Garcia to start the second and, in the next game, calmly roared back from 0-40 down to hold serve, winning 5 straight points to go up 2-0.
The World No 1 never faced another break point for the rest of the way in a match she sealed in style with an ace.
Garcia tried to use aggressive court positioning to throw her opponent off, and was often returning serves from well inside the baseline, but Swiatek was prepared for the Frenchwoman’s tactics.
While her heavy topspin forehand is a formidable weapon, it was her backhand that held up to the task on Thursday, producing stunning passing shots when Garcia closed down the net, or punishing the lengthier baseline exchanges with explosive winners.
Her serve also grew stronger as the match wore on, including finishing with a 108 mph ace.
The 21-year-old leads the tour with 8 titles this year, including winning the French Open and US Open crowns.
“She was definitely the best this year,” Garcia said. “And she keeps proving it.”
Swiatek, who put together a 37-match win streak earlier this year, is aiming to finish 2022 on as high a note as possible.
After her first round-robin win over Kasatkina, she spoke about how becoming the world’s top player has brought more maturity to her approach.
“For sure, I am trying to focus more,” Swiatek said. “It’s my goal in this tournament because, in San Diego, I felt like I needed to lose on set to get to a different level of focus – maybe because I was tired. But here, I feel like I can just give it all in.”
Swiatek has won all 4 sets she has played so far this week, while dropping a total of just 10 games.
“It’s the last tournament of the season, so I have, kind of, nothing to lose,” she added. “I don’t have to worry what I’m going to do next. So, yeah, for sure, I’m giving it 100%, physically and mentally.”
Later, in a battle of two players making their debuts at the season-ending event, Kasatkina improved her record over Gauff to 3-0 with an efficient display that featured 14 winners to 14 unforced errors, while the young American fired 26 winners, but was undone by her 43 unforced errors.
“It was tough,” Kasatkina said afterwards. “I was nervous at the beginning.
“With the rhythm of the match, nerves disappear a little bit, and start to be better. So I’m really happy to be in the next round, still alive.”
A see-saw first set saw Kasatkina rally from 4-1 down to grab a set point at 6-5 and, although Gauff fended that one off as they went to a tiebreak in which she led 3-0, but the Russian rallied again, loading up on her forehands to give herself 2 more.
Gauff again held on, but she sent a forehand into the net on Kasatkina’s 3rd opportunity.
The World No 8 kept up the pressure in the second, trading a couple of breaks with Gauff, before breaking to take a 4-2 lead, and then serving out the match a few games later.
“To win for the first time at the Finals is an incredible feeling,” Kasatkina said. “Obviously you want to win, and go further in the tournament, so the motivation to win is there, but it’s not easy to manage the nerves and I feel it.
“I hope I can make it [to the semi-finals] in the next match.”
Tears had appeared in Gauff’s eyes on a changeover after giving away her lead, as the teenager realised her hopes of reaching the semi-finals were fading away.
Gauff, the youngest participant in both events at the WTA Finals since Anna Kournikova in 1999, fell to 0-4 on her debut, losing her 2 singles matches as well as her 2 doubles outings with Jessica Pegula.
“I had a lot of chances,” Gauff reflected later. “I didn’t play my best tennis today, but a lot to take from it, a lot to learn from it and hopefully do better next time.
“In both the [singles] matches, I had opportunities. I think I made a lot of unforced errors. So I think that’s something that I will have to clean up.”
Still in the hunt for the title, Kasatkina faces Garcia on Saturday, with the winner of that match advancing to the semi-finals.
“This is exactly what we face every single week,” Kasatkina said. “If you win, you advance, if you lose, you go home. So it’s gonna be fun. The last tournament of the season for me and facing this kind of situation.”
Kasatkina is now 5-2 against Top 5 opponents in 2022, and her 2 losses to Top 5 players this year have both come from Swiatek, in the Roland Garros semi-finals and two days ago in her opening round-robin match in Fort Worth.
“Normally if you lost, you’re just like, ‘OK, the tournament is done,’ I pack my bags and I go to the airport,” Kasatkina said. “Here is completely different.
“I had to push myself to practice the next day, like nothing happened, and prepare for the next match.
“That was interesting. I felt unusual, let’s say, but pretty happy how I handled the situation, which was quite new for me.”
The win adds to a career-best year on hard courts for Kasatkina, with her 25th victory on the surface already her highest annual tally.
In the doubles competition Canada’s Gabriela Dabroswki & Giuliana Olmos from Mexico stayed alive with a 7-6(5) 2-6 [12-10] win over Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko & Lyudmyla Kichenok from Ukraine on Thursday.
Dabrowski & Olmos saved match point in the tiebreak, and evened their record in the Pam Shriver Group at 1-1 after rebounding from their loss to Kazakh Anna Danilina & Beatriz Haddad Maia from Brazil in their opening match on Tuesday, while Ostapenko & Kichenok have fallen to 0-2.
After splitting the two sets to take the match into a match tiebreak, Kichenok & Ostapenko methodically worked their way back from an early mini-break to level at 8-8.
Dabrowski & Olmos missed their first match point opportunity at 9-8 after the Canadian punched a backhand volley long.
Two points later, Ostapenko had a chance to close out the win at 10-9, but the Latvian mishit an easy overhead put-away to give the Canadian-Mexican pair a lifeline, and they made no mistake on their second match point, closing out the dramatic win on an errant Ostapenko return.
Ostapenko & Kichenok had 4 breaks in the match, 2 more than their opponents, but were dogged by inconsistent play as they produced 27 unforced errors, compared to 6 for Dabrowski & Olmos, who will face Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova & Elise Mertens from Belgium in their final group stage match.
Kudermetova & Mertens, who opened with a win over Ostapenko & Kichenok, defeated Danilina & Haddad Maia, 6-4 6-3, to stay undefeated and move to the top of the table in the Pam Shriver Group, dropping the recent Guadalajara finalists to 1-1.
With the Day 4’s results, no team has secured qualification into the semi-finals, with all 4 teams still in the running to advance.