As the clock struck midnight, the semi-finalists of the doubles competition at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen were determined on Friday when No 8 seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld & Demi Schuurs completed the lineup by virtue of a victory in the final round-robin match of the tournament.
Today it was a battle. In the second set, some deuce points, but we won it in two sets. That was the most important, that we won. Now, we are just looking forward to tomorrow again. Lena Groenefeld
Facing a ‘win and in’ scenario, the German and Dutch duo defeated the No 5 seeds, the sisters Chan, Hao-ching & Latisha, 6-2 6-4, to finish second in the Red Group, behind No 3 seeds Timea Babos & Kristina Mladenovic.
“I think we executed our tactics really well. We played aggressive, and then we had a little letdown in the beginning of the second,” Groenefeld said after the match.
“We refocused really well I think, and then it was a battle in the end. A few no-ad points, and we made the big points as well. I think it turned out pretty well, actually.”
Entering Friday’s play, the German and Dutchwoman could have been eliminated before they even took the court, with top seeds Elise Mertens & Aryna Sabalenka holding qualification in their hands.
A win for the US Open champions over Babos & Mladenovic would have seen them win the group, with the No 3 seeds finishing second, but the Hungarian/French pair rallied from a set down to score a 4-6 6-2 [10-5] victory to top the group undefeated.
The reigning French Open champions failed to win the opening set despite leading by a break twice, but won 6 of the last 7 points in the ensuing match tiebreak to seal victory.
Mertens & Sabalenka could have reached the semifinals had the Chan sisters, already eliminated from contention, scored a victory over Groenefeld & Schuurs, but the No 8 seeds proved up to the task before them in just over an hour.
“Overall I think we played a really good match in the first match, we beat the top seeds. We were so happy about that win,” Schuurs said.
“But also in the second match, we were so close, again, to a strong team, again. And today it was a battle. In the second set, some deuce points, but we won it in two sets. That was the most important, that we won. Now, we are just looking forward to tomorrow again.”
After dominating the opening set, Groenefeld & Schuurs rallied from a double break down at 3-0 in the second set and won the last 3 games from a further break down from then on, sealing victory as Latisha Chan served the sisters’ 5th double fault of the match.
Having never won a match between them previously at the WTA Finals, the No 8 seeds will next look to dethrone Wimbledon champions and No 2 seeds Barbora Strycova & Hsieh Su-wei, winners of the Purple Group, in the semis.
“Of course it’s going to be a tough one, we’re expecting a battle,” the German added. “We’ve played them a few times, we lost a nail-biter in Birmingham. Of course, we go out and we try our best, and we see what happens.”
It was a fitting way to advance for the last team to qualify for Shenzhen, who are quickly making up for lost time as one of the newest partnerships on the doubles map.
The pair started their campaign by taking down the top seeds Sabalenka & Mertens in their opening match, and ultimately knocked them out of the tournament with their win on Friday night.
“That’s the goal when you come here, getting out of the group stage,” Groenefeld said afterwards. “And for us, it’s the first time playing in the round robin, and I think it’s great that the format is like this.
“To come out of it with all of these amazing teams… yeah, it’s been a really good feeling.”
It is a great achievement for Groenefeld & Schuurs, who started the year playing doubles with different partners and spent much of the first half of the season on opposite sides of the net.
The pair committed to playing together at Stuttgart in May, considerably later than most of the qualified teams.
“We started in May, and all of the other teams started in January,” Schuurs pointed out. “I think that’s something that’s in our mind, probably Anna as well – we lost some months, we lost some points, because of that.
“The other teams, they played many more tournaments together. I think it’s something we can be proud of.”
The Dutch-German duo fought their way into the championship match in 5 different tournaments, all Premier-level and higher, on 3 different surfaces this year, Doha, Rome, Birmingham, Toronto and Cincinnati, with only the Chan sisters having reached as many finals in 2019.
“I think overall, yes we played 5 finals. We lost 5 finals, but I think we are the team that made the most finals this year along with the Chan sisters,” Schuurs added. “That means that we are one of the most consistent.
“We played in big tournament finals, so that’s the reason why we are here.
“I think the most important thing is that our personalities match very well,” Schuurs reflected. “On court, but also off court.
“For myself for example, if I play with someone who is getting angry, my level goes down. And for Anna it’s the same, we have the same personality.
“On court, we are different and we play with different game styles – that’s probably why we are the perfect match.”
Into their first WTA Finals semi-final as a team, Groenefeld & Schuurs will take on Strycova & Hsieh, having lost out to them in the Birmingham final in a heartbreaker, falling 10-8 in the match tiebreak.
“Of course it’s going to be a tough one, we’re expecting a battle,” Groenefeld said. “We’ve played them a few times, we lost a nail-biter in Birmingham.
“Of course, we go out and we try our best, and we see what happens.”
Babos & Mladenovic are the defending champions and were one of the most dominant doubles teams of the first half of the season after starting the year in fine form with a run to the Australian Open final, and going on to claim back-to-back clay court titles in Istanbul and the French Open, their second Grand Slam as a pair.
According to former doubles World No 1 Mladenovic, the pair’s biggest wins as a team have always came away from the tennis courts.
“For me, it doesn’t matter the season that we had, the important thing will always be the friendship between me and Timea, really,” Mladenovic said.
“This year we didn’t maybe play as much as we wanted. But that’s just how it is, because our priority is singles. We helped each other through that and made decisions together.
“Stepping on court with her on the biggest stages, it’s the best thing, always.
“Every single time I go on court with her in the big matches, when there’s like adrenaline or stress, or fears or emotions… even the fun practices, or like the moody days, it’s just everything!” Mladenovic laughed.
“The life with her makes it so much more fun and more enjoyable.”
Former rivals in juniors, the pair’s relationship has grown and evolved over the years as they navigated the transition into the professional tour, culminating in a friendship that has seen them combine for multiple Grand Slam titles and individually reach the doubles World No 1 ranking.
“We’ve known each other for a very long time,” Babos explained. “I think we really grew together, we matured together… And in the last couple of years that really helped us on growing together as individual persons and just to be strong and realize that at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily the victory that matters.
“Of course, we always want to win, but someone has to lose sometimes.”
While they are not fans of the round robin format, which returned to the WTA Finals doubles competition for the first time since 2015, they had no problems getting through the opening hurdles and building up a 3-0 record.
“The funny thing is… we are super rarely practicing doubles,” Mladenovic admitted. “Actually never. The only time we practice is those kinds of weeks that we’re here and only focused on that.
“We are big competitors, so [winning Roland Garros] was just amazing, every single moment.
“Personally I cherish all of them, we had the trophy in Australia [last year] and we went back again to the final.
“It was a very special thing and we learned a lot, helped each other a lot at the end. And yeah, afterwards we claimed another Grand Slam title together, which is just amazing. It helped us to be here another time.”
Babos points to the way their variety and weapons in singles help smooth the transition to doubles.
“Our game is really matching in general,” Babos explained. “So we just need a couple of days, couple of practices to really adjust and make a bigger difference.
“Also our singles game allows us also to be like this. I mean, we know how to volley. Some singles players, they can be the best in the world but they have no idea how to volley.
“I think it’s a huge advantage that we’ve played together for a long time and did great things together already.”
In the semi-finals Babos & Mladenovic will take on No 7 seeds Samantha Stosur & Zhang Shuai in a rematch of this year’s Australian Open final.
After making the perfect start to the season by lifting the Australian Open tro
phy in Stosur’s home country, the pair are hoping to come full circle and finish the year with a win on Zhang’s home turf.
Entering their last match of the round robin with a 1-1 record, their final clash against No 6 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova was a must-win affair and they got the job done in dramatic fashion, coming back from 5-1 down in the second set and saving 7 set points on the way to a 6-3 7-6(7) victory.
“We just stayed positive and we knew, okay, even though we’re 5-1 down in the scoreboard, it’s actually still very close,” Stosur said. “Those first 4 or 5 games of the second set, almost all of them was a deuce game.
“We knew we were only losing it by one point every time, and we felt like we could do better.
“I mean, you never know if you can come back from 5-1 down, especially with a short deuce [no-ad scoring], but we kept trying to do the right thing and play every single point. And it worked out.”
Having paired up sporadically in the past, a strong finish to 2018, highlighted by a run to the US Open semi-finals and a trophy in Hong Kong, prompted the pair to commit to playing together regularly this season.
“When we played the US Open, both of our coaches said one day for sure we can win the Grand Slam,” Zhang recalled. “So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll try!’”
Their coaches’ hunch turned out the right and pair were immediately rewarded, dropping just one set along the way to their first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Stosur said. “We could feel the excitement getting a little bit more each match.
“And to win at home… I had lost in the final like 13 years before – and I had two match points in that match! – so to finally win the title in Melbourne, it was great.”
For Zhang & Stosur, who are primarily focused on singles week in and week out, the WTA Finals experience in doubles has turned out to be a refreshing change of pace.
The pair finally get the chance to practice together on a regular basis, a rarity for the Chinese-Australian duo.
“I think that’s one thing that we’ve really found beneficial,” Stosur admitted. “We got here a few days before, and we’ve practiced together every day.
“And already knowing who your opponents are the day before, you can be very specific in practice. Getting to talk about things, spend more time – it can only help you.”
Through to the semi-finals in Shenzhen in her tournament debut, Zhang also carries the flag for her country as the last Chinese player left standing in the doubles after Xu Yifan, who partnered with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski, went 1-2 in the group stage.
“I think it’s very good for the tournament and for the Chinese fans,” Zhang acknowledged. “I know my sponsor Gemdale is happy too. It’s always nice to have a player from the country playing.”
“Yeah, every time we were coming back in that second set, you could hear the crowd getting louder and louder,” Stosur said. “Lots of ‘jiayou’, and ‘jiayou’ for me as well.
“It’s so nice, it’s always good to feel that support. So for me, I just get to ride on the back of Shuai here and enjoy her being Chinese.”
“For me, it’s so special,” Zhang added. “It’s the first time I play this tournament, and it’s also in my home. For Sam, she wins here many times, so maybe this feels less special?”
“No, not at all, it’s still very special,” Stosur said.
“It’s special to play with me!” Zhang replied with a grin.
Stosur & Zhang take on Babos & Mladenovic on Saturday for a spot in the final of the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.