They say, as a door closes, somewhere a window opens and as the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy completed in Zhuhai, so the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals began in Shenzhen, south China.
She started going hard at me from the beginning and I just had to adjust to it Naomi Osaka
Aryna Sabalenka’s terrific run of form in China shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, and she will be moving on with the Zhuhai singles trophy in hand to contest the doubles at the season-ending championships.
The Belarusian finished her singles season with a bang, defeating top-seeded Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, 6-4 6-2, to claim the Elite Trophy, her 3rd singles title of the year and all in China.
“For the next season, I would like to win somewhere else instead of China,” she joked in her post-match press conference. “But also I would like to keep winning in China.
“But I’m just really happy with this title and with the finish of my singles season, it’s really impressive.”
In total, 4 of her 5 career WTA singles titles have been won in China.
“Next is Shenzhen, right?” she said as she plans to join Elise Mertens at the WTA Finals.
“The expectation is just to do everything I can and to show our best level of tennis with Elise and just to do our best, that’s the expectation.”
Sabalenka is playing on Monday, but the event began on Sunday, featuring the world’s best players vying for a record-breaking $14 million in prize money and two of the most prestigious titles in women’s tennis.
The Top 8 singles players and doubles teams on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen are competing in a round-robin format with the singles champion lifting the Billie Jean King Trophy, while the doubles champions will hoist the WTA Finals Martina Navratilova Trophy.
Conditions are rather different in Shenzhen, and the general consensus amongst the players, in both doubles and singles, is that the combination of court and balls at the Bay Sports Centre are playing slow.
World No 1, Ash Barty noted a lower bounce on the purple and grey show court: “It’s a little bit of a similar surface to an indoor Fed Cup surface, where it’s on boards, a little bit lower bouncing at times, can be a little bit unpredictable with how it reacts to spin,” Barty said.
“I think sometimes it can be up and down, a little bit different, but in saying that, it’s a beautiful court.
“We’ve had a few days to prepare and get used to it. It’s no different to any other time we need to give yourself a few days to get used to the court.”
The complex, which is nicknamed Spring Cocoon for its shape, is a multi-use stadium that was built on reclaimed land and completed in 2011.
The WTA has committed its year-end championships to Shenzhen for 10 years after a 5-year run in Singapore, and highlighted the move with a record prize pool from which the winning champion can receive up to an eye-watering $4,725 million.
All the stops are being pulled out to stage a great show, with a glittering opening ceremony preceding the two singles matches on the schedule for Sunday.
There are no easy matches in Shenzhen, with the best women in the world competing for honours and the biggest prize money purse ever.
Opening up play in the Red Group was Japan’s Naomi Osaka, taking on and eventually overcoming Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic in a three-set marathon, 7-6(1) 4-6 6-4, in 2 hours and 39 minutes.
Kvitova, the oldest player in the draw at 29, is making her 7th WTA Finals appearance and In a rematch of this year’s tense Australian Open final, she came out with intent until she stuttered in the 8th game of the opening set with 3 double faults to squander her serve.
The Czech had made a flying start, notching 3 powerful holds and earning a break in the first game of the match with a smash winner.
An ace pushed Petra 2-0 up and there were more break chances up for grabs in the 3rd game, having the opportunity to forge an even bigger advantage, but Osaka fended off those to remain within a one break deficit.
The Japanese broke back in game 8 after taking 4 straight points to level the score at 4-4.
Although the tall Czech had a chance to go in front again in the 9th, she squandered 3 break points and lost the tiebreak, garnering just 1 point after a terrible return to hand the set to her rival despite having had more chances than her.
Osaka, the World No 3, had to regroup from several lethargic stretches to win her first rubber after a winless campaign in her debut appearance last year and stretching her current winning streak to 11 matches having recently claimed the titles in Osaka and Beijing.
Kvitova, ranked 6, scored 40 winners but also 40 unforced errors, playing some loose forehands at pivotal moments and failing to make the points shorter or produce more damage on the return.
At the outset, she rushed the net with alacrity and blitzed the ball past Osaka with ease, striking 8 clean winners in the first 3 games alone, breaking in the first with a smash and holding 2 points for the double break in the third.
The 22-year-old was being outgunned by Kvitova’s power, particularly on the forehand down the line, and out-manoeuvred by the Czech’s forecourt dominance.
Three straight service winners extricated Osaka from trouble, and a smart move forwards of her own got her on the scoreboard.
“She started going hard at me from the beginning and I just had to adjust to it,” Osaka said after the match.
Osaka held off 2 break points in the 9th game before dominating the tiebreak, hammering down her 5th and 6th aces as Kvitova’s forehand fell apart, taking her unforced error count to 24 for the set, compared to 21 winners.
It seemed to shake the Czech’s confidence, but Kvitova impressively clawed back in the second set, taking advantage of an error-strewn Osaka, who several times slammed her racket in frustration.
Undaunted, however, Kvitova took advantage of Osaka’s first patch of careless errors to capture the first break for 2-0, but the former World No 1 was quick to bounce back to reel off 3 games in a row to go up a break herself for 3-2.
They traded 4 breaks in the opening 6 games of the second set and, this time, it was Kvitova who had the upper hand in the closing moments, securing the 3rd break in game 10 following a loose backhand from Osaka, and forcing the decider.
Kvitova’s double faults continued to be ill-timed and her unreliable forehand offered Osaka the chance to go up a break, which the Australian Open champion seized with a clean backhand return winner, one of a number of phenomenal redirections with that stroke during this passage of play.
The Czech was not about to give up without a fight, though, and, aiming her returns deep and at Osaka’s feet, the 2-time Wimbledon champion continued to press at every opportunity, drawing errors from her visibly frustrated opponent to draw level.
Then, with canny use of variety to construct points, Kvitova stole the set as Osaka sent her backhand wide.
As in Melbourne, Osaka had edged a tight first set on a dominant tiebreak but managed to lose the second from a winning position.
The pattern continued, as the Japanese put her disappointment behind her and delivered a tight, focused decider.
She re-grouped, and put her foot down in the third as Kvitova’s magic deserted her just when she needed it most.
The Japanese broke in the 3rd game and extended her lead at 4-2 when Kvitova sprayed a volley error, moving a game away from the victory.
Double faults proved Kvitova’s Achilles’ heel yet again, and her 7th and 8th paved the way to a break in the 2nd game, sealing it for Osaka when a Czech drop-shot limped halfway up the net.
A 9th double put her down break point in the 7th game, and a volley into the tramlines moved Osaka up 5-2 with the double break.
Osaka, by contrast, was repeatedly able to find her best serves at key moments, raising her tally of aces to 12 and complementing them with some fine forecourt play of her own as she took firm control of the 3rd set.
The double break would prove crucial, as Kvitova swarmed the net, fending off 2 match points to break and stay alive the first time Osaka served for the win.
Now there were no further errors from Osaka, and a pair of service winners, a bold drive volley and a sweeping backhand winner saw the Japanese over the line, scoring her first ever WTA Finals victory on her 3rd match point, having totalled 30 winners to 29 unforced errors and issuing a statement to her rivals in the Red Group.
“For me it was very difficult and usually there’s first-round first jitters, and you can’t really afford it, as she came hard at me from the beginning,” Osaka said.
Round-robin action continued in the Red Group into the evening, with two doubles matches also on tap later in the night.