Defending champion Elina Svitolina made it a clean sweep to win the Purple Group at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen on Friday, dispatching second alternate Sofia Kenin in two very tight sets, 7-5 7-6(10), after 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Each time I step on the court I have to win," Svitolina confirmed afterwards. "My parents raised me this way - that I have to fight for everything, I have to give 100% each time I play. Elina Svitolina
Kenin was substituting for No 4 seed Bianca Andreescu, who suffered a knee injury during her match against Karolina Pliskova, marking the first time since 2009 that two alternates have competed at the WTA Finals.
Then, first alternate Vera Zvonareva replaced Dinara Safina and second alternate Agnieszka Radwanska substituted for Zvonareva.
Svitolina and Kenin had split their 4 previous meetings 2-2, all played this year on outdoor hard courts, with both of Svitolina’s victories achieved over three sets.
The Ukrainian, who is the No 8 seed in Shenzhen, already had her place at the top of the group’s standing sewn up already, but she wasn’t prepared to rest on her laurels in her final round-robin match, coming from a break down in both sets to post her third win.
“Each time I step on the court I have to win,” Svitolina confirmed afterwards. “My parents raised me this way – that I have to fight for everything, I have to give 100% each time I play.
“They would be very angry if I would just give this match to her. And my grandmother, as well – she would be very sad.”
Having started the group stages by triumphing in the longest tiebreak of the WTA Tour season, a 14-12 epic over Karolina Pliskova, Svitolina ends by winning the joint second longest, a dramatic 12-10 breaker that she finally took on her 6th match point.
“I already had similar experience in the first match here,” she said. “I knew that I had to stay strong. There was no other way. I had no other option. That’s pretty much what helped me to win.”
Deploying a more aggressive first-strike strategy, Svitolina tallied 11 aces and 25 winners for the day, but still needed to draw on her trademark grit to reel Kenin in over the course of a first set in which the defending champion trailed almost all the way.
The American’s superior intensity out of the blocks garnered her the first break and a quick 3-1 advantage, but thereafter she squandered numerous opportunities to build a more unassailable lead, with 6 double faults proving costly.
Two points for a 4-1 double break went begging – the first on a dead net cord for Svitolina – as did 2 to hold for 4-2 when the 20-year-old lapsed into error to concede her own serve.
Although Kenin regained the break immediately, her forehand went awry when it came to serving out the set.
Meanwhile Svitolina, as the set progressed, was growing in confidence, taking one drive volleys with aplomb and at one stage serving a trio of aces to hold.
She hustled the two games that ended the first set and opened the second in which Kenin sprang out to a 40-0 lead.
Both times, Svitolina came up with some of her finest serving, defence and creativity to steal the game from under her opponent’s nose.
Chasing down a Kenin drop-shot sealed the opening act and a brilliantly timed clean drop-shot winner of her own saved a 4th break point in the next game en route to the hold.
A series of well-played holds ensued, with both players coming up with quality ball-striking, and some spectacular retrieving from Svitolina.
Despite this, Kenin held firm to stave off a break point with a backhand one-two punch to hold for 4-4, and immediately made her move on the former World No 3’s serve, unleashing a few more brilliant backhands to break for 5-4.
As in the first set, Svitolina was unable to close the deal in a dramatic tussle that swung back and forth.
Kenin held a set point this time round, only for her 10th and 11th double faults to follow.
Svitolina, whose intensity had slightly dipped in the previous passage of play, lit up again, nailing a backhand pass at full stretch and drawing errors with deep returns, eventually taking her 4th break point to level at 5-5.
In contrast to Kenin’s service woes, Svitolina’s delivery would be one of her greatest weapons on this day, as she demonstrated superbly in the closing stages of the match.
Two aces and 2 service winners took her to 6-5, and the 25-year-old hammered down another 2 in the ensuing tiebreak.
Nonetheless, Kenin, who has been raring to go all week, was keen to extend her WTA Finals on-court experience, and she battled valiantly in a gripping extended finale.
Despite being plagued by double faults and 45 unforced errors, the American came up with the goods with her back to the wall to save 1 match point serving at 5-6, and another 4 in the gripping tiebreak – 2 with perfectly conceived and executed drop-shots, another with consecutive down-the-line strikes to end a 23-shot rally, and yet another with a bold drive volley.
Svitolina, who remained undeterred from her mission, came full circle in her round-robin journey, ending as she had begun by showing the supreme resolve needed to edge a marathon tiebreak, this time capturing her 6th match point as a final Kenin forehand found the net.
“There was a lot of physical strength in this match,” Svitolina said. “I tried to focus on what I need to do on the court, winning every point.
“Sometimes you don’t play better tennis, so you have to overcome such obstacles. That’s what I did, and in the end, I got a little bit for it.”
Svitolina’s place at the top of the Purple Group was already assured, and she will now face No 7 seed Belinda Bencic in Saturday’s semi-finals, while Halep and Pliskova are fighting for second place in the group, the winner to face No1 seed Ashleigh Barty in the last four.
“The semi-final against Bencic? It will be another difficult match. I will try to be ready, get some rest and prepare for the match,” concluded Svitolina.