For the third day in a row, a player has had to withdraw from the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Maybe her gas just really ran out. It was a bit unfortunate. Obviously not the way I wanted to win, but super proud of how I fought in that set. I was thinking maybe she wins the first set, maybe different story. I think after I lost the first match here, I just wanted to keep fighting, and you never know. Belinda Bencic
This time it was the first alternate, Kiki Bertens, who had come in as a replacement for Naomi Osaka on Tuesday and taken out the World No 1 Ash Barty in three sets.
The Dutchwoman retired from her match with Belinda Bencic, and afterwards said: “I had some problems with my stomach. The energy was not there.
“A little bit dizzy. Just too much to continue… I think I gave absolutely everything this year and this week. I’m proud of that. Like five weeks ago, I said to myself, You’re completely dead. I guess now I’m almost there.”
After staying toe-to-toe through a nail-biting qualification campaign in the weeks leading up to the WTA Finals, No 7 seed Belinda Bencic and alternate Kiki Bertens’ were crossing paths one last time, battling for a semi-final spot out of the Red Group, the latest twist in a story of intertwined fates that defined the tail end of the Porsche Race to Shenzhen.
“It’s such a coincidence,” Bencic said in an earlier press conference. “I think it was meant to be like this. Yeah, obviously she’s a big fighter. She always comes back.”
“I thought I kind of won the fight in Moscow. But she’s here again!” Bencic added with a laugh.
Not for long, though, and Bencic prevailed 7-5, 1-0 in 61 minutes after Bertens retired ill.
She received medical attention after the opening game of the second set and had her blood pressure, pulse and temperature checked by a doctor, before becoming the second player in the tournament to retire mid-match after Bianca Andreescu withdrew against Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday.
The Dutchwoman had started well with her meaty groundstrokes overpowering Bencic, but she was unable to close out the set on serve in the 10th game.
Bencic made her pay, and broke again in the 12th game to snatch the first set and, shortly after, registered her first victory over Bertens in an abbreviated 4th matchup between the pair.
The Swiss will now play defending champion Elina Svitolina in the semi-final on Saturday.
“I’m really sorry for her,” Bencic said after the match. “It’s the end of the season, so everyone is exhausted.”
“Maybe her gas just really ran out. It was a bit unfortunate.
“Obviously not the way I wanted to win, but super proud of how I fought in that set.
“I was thinking maybe she wins the first set, maybe different story. I think after I lost the first match here, I just wanted to keep fighting, and you never know.
“There’s people that made it to the semi-final when they won just one match. I was always thinking of those positives.
“I think everyone is exhausted and injured, all of that. I think now it’s all about the mental strength to go through all of this.”
They were playing for the second time in a month, and the various scenarios in the group had come down to this straightforward winner-takes-all contest.
The victor finished second behind top seed Barty and moves on to face defending champion Elina Svitolina in Saturday’s semi-finals.
Having already denied Bertens a place in the original Shenzhen field by winning Moscow two weeks ago, Bencic denied her again with key tactical adjustments and greater energy to come from a break down in the first set before the alternate’s tank ran dry in the second.
A cagy opening to the match had seen the Swiss pressure her opponent’s serve first, only for Bertens to fend off 2 break points in the 4th game with her renowned first serve, and to take advantage of a rattled Bencic’s errors to immediately get the break herself for 3-2.
Serving for the set, the 27-year-old wobbled for the first time, and Bencic, having failed to make a significant impact on the Bertens first serve until this point, began to get returns back in play, and backed them up by bold net approaches.
“I needed to do that,” recalled Bencic. “I had no choice because she was really slowing down the pace.
“Especially on this court – it’s good for her and players like her with the slices and with the off-pace shots.
“I definitely tried to force that and make her more under pressure, go through it, make my shots faster.”
The change worked, as did increased sharpness on big points, and Bencic won the last 4 games of the set from 3-5 down, as Bertens made errors on desperate drop-shot attempts.
The Swiss backhand and drive volleys went from strength to strength and, after a love hold to open the second set, Bertens, who was competing for an 8th consecutive week since the US Open, took a medical timeout and it was all over.
“We were fighting a lot coming into here for the 8th spot,” Bencic said in an on-court interview. “It was nice to have a match tonight for the semi-finals.
“I’m really sorry for her. I think maybe the gas ran out. I wish her the best.
“I think she was slowing down the pace well, so it was tactically good from her. I’m happy with how I played and fought, so I’m excited to be in the semis.”
Fate had determined that Bencic took the last place in 8-woman draw at Shenzhen, while Bertens got in by virtue of taking Osaka’s spot in the Red Group, and fate had placed them together in the same group.
“I think everything this week is extra, of course,” Bertens had said in an early press conference. “I’m a little bit lucky to get in. Unfortunate for Naomi, of course.
“I just take her spot, try to perform as good as I can, try to give all the energy what’s left in me.”
With all four players alive in the Red Group with a win and a loss to each, the final round robin clash pitted them against each other in a battle for the semi-finals as a fitting end to the pair’s neck-and-neck race to Shenzhen.
“Obviously really happy and much respect to her,” said Bencic ahead of the match. “But, yeah, it’s in our own hands. Whoever wins this match is going to go. I already thought in Moscow it’s going to be like this. She lost to Mladenovic. I was prepared already for that match.
“I think it’s fair: who wins the match goes.”
Despite trailing 3-0 in the pair’s head-to-head series, Bencic brushed the statistics and an early deficit aside to secure her place in the semis after the 22-year-old led 7-5, 1-0, and, as fate dictated, Bertens retired due to a viral illness.