Shenzhen | Svitolina sweeps past Halep into semi-finals
Day 3 saw the return of the Purple Group at the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, south China, with defending champion Elina Svitolina defeating the No 5 seed, Simona Halep, 7-5 6-3, in one hour and 39 minutes, and winning her 7th straight match at the year-end finale.
I don't really think so much about if it's good, if it's bad. Just taking every point, every game at a time. I try to step on the court and to always have positive mindset Elina Svitolina
Both had wins to their credit in the standings, but Svitolina stood at the top of the table by virtue of not having dropped a set against Karolina Pliskova on Tuesday, while Halep led their head-to-head, 5-4.
The win over Halep guarantees the Ukrainian World No 8 a place in the last 4, with one group rubber to spare, but Halep must play Karolina Pliskova in her final match to determine which player will go through.
Svitolina and Halep were well matched for large parts of the gruelling match, but the Ukrainian was more consistent at crucial moments.
After a tight first, set she broke serve to love at 6-5 to take a 1-0 lead, helped by errors off the racket of her Romanian opponent.
Halep broke early in the second, but Svitolina hit back immediately and then broke to love again to move 5-3 in front as Halep faltered.
Svitolina had to save 2 break points when as she served for the match, but eventually clinched the win on her first match point.
“It was an extremely physical match,” Svitolina said afterwards. “I played very solid. I’m very happy about that.
“I try to work every single point and start from the beginning just trying to take one point at a time.
“I don’t really think so much about if it’s good, if it’s bad. Just taking every point, every game at a time. I try to step on the court and to always have positive mindset.”
Similar in stature and game styles, both have Nike contracts and were identically dressed, other than only Svitolina sported a visor, making identification difficult, especially for television viewers.
Again one wonders at a spectator sport that can shoot itself in the foot this way.
Nevertheless, the WTA champion at the end of this week will receive a record $4.75 million in prize money.
“I think it is an amazing effort for WTA to achieve this record prize money, not only the highest at WTA, but in tennis in general,” the Ukrainian said in a recent interview.
“That’s a big achievement for WTA Tour, and hopefully we can do even more in the future.”
She was also asked about the likelihood of her winning the year-end championship for the second year in a row.
“I don’t really think of my chances,” she said, dodging the question. “I try to go with a fresh mind and to approach this tournament as all the other ones.
“Of course, it’s very special because it gathers only the 8 best players in the world. For me last year, it definitely gave the confidence and this push to play well at the Grand Slams.
“I’m very motivated to come and play.”
Equal pay has been a clarion call for the WTA for decades and the Tour’s crown jewel event, which pits the players together in 2 groups of 4, with the top 2 moving through to the semi-finals, has seen its total prize money double from $7m in 2018 to $14m – more than any other tennis event.
The previous record was set at the 2019 US Open, where the winners of both the men’s and ladies’ singles events claimed $3.85m.
WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon said: “It’s a reflection of the value of our sport and our athletes.
“We are looking for a long-term investment. We had no pushback in the marketplace with respect to getting the compensation level up for the athletes to the record levels that we’ve achieved.
“We are doing everything we can to continue to raise the compensation levels for women athletes.
“The sport of tennis deserves a lot of credit with regards to equal pay. But we still have work to do in our lower levels. There are certainly challenges.
“All of our events have been increasing our prize money. The growth over the last 10 years has been consistent, and it’s moving forward at a good rate. It’s a great sign for our athletes.”
In the high quality on-court contest, it was Svitolina who drew first blood, taking the opening set after a fine tussle.
The Ukrainian had to hold off several patches of irresistible form from Halep, but ultimately she proved the superior, able to select and execute the right shots to avoid relinquishing her lead.
The result avenged 2 previous defeats at the hands of Halep this season, and squares their overall head-to-head at 5 wins apiece.
Svitolina leapt out of the blocks with the sharper start, hitting her spots with pinpoint accuracy to storm through 14 of the first 18 points, taking a quick 3-0 lead over an error-strewn Halep.
The Romanian steadied and came up with some brilliant strikes from the forehand wing in particular to level at 3-3.
Just when it seemed the momentum might swing fully towards the Wimbledon champion, who held a break point to move up 4-3, Svitolina stood firm to hold off the looming threat.
A big backhand strike on the run drew a netted forehand from Halep to stave off the break point, setting the stage for a run of 6 tightly contested holds as each tried to penetrate the other’s defence.
At the business end of the set, Svitolina sensed the moment to step up and her hold for 6-5 featured more outright winners than in any other game, setting her up for a love break to capture the opener as Halep relapsed into error, taking her tally to an uncharacteristic 21.
“I was moving well,” smiled Svitolina. “I think every player tries to work for that moment when the opponent has no answer.
“I know that when I’m fit, I can play very good, I can move very good, I have a good defence. It’s about managing attack and defence for me.”
Despite the tightness of the first set, ground would be even less easily given as the second act began.
Both players used every inch and angle of the court in their attempts to out-manoeuvre the other but, more often than not, it was Svitolina who translated this into scoreboard results.
Halep made the first move, hammering a clean backhand return winner to go up 2-1, but the Ukrainian responded by immediately pegging her back via a 3-deuce mini-tussle, finishing with some spectacular defence.
From there, the Wimbledon and US Open semi-finalist was in the driver’s seat, exhibiting her gritty defensive skills and firing 4 aces to help gain more comfort on her.
At one point, she found a particularly creative way to end an extended rally, chopping a forehand through the court with so much side spin that it landed as a clean winner.
“I think many people were surprised – even myself because I played it that well,” recalled Svitolina.
“Honestly, I actually played many more of these shots when I was growing up. I was lots of slicing.
“It was actually working a lot for myself because my coach at that time, he really hated that shot. But you see here, it brought me a point, very important one. Surprised the opponent. You never know – it might help me in the future, too.”
As in the first set, Svitolina’s awareness of when to adjust her tactics according to the scoreboard moment was razor-sharp.
A handful of Halep errors in the 8th game opened the door slightly and, upping the ante, Svitolina pounded through it, breaking to love with a backhand drive volley.
Serving for the match, the 25-year-old had a minor wobble, but Halep was unable to take advantage of 2 break-back points, and clutch serving ultimately got Svitolina over the line and into the semi-finals for the second year in a row, with her position in the group dependent on results to come.
“I don’t take it as a pressure, to be fair [being the previous year’s champion],” said Svitolina, who has successfully defended 3 titles in her career to date.
“Of course, there is some kind of pressure because you’re losing points in this week. I think this kind of thing is pressure.
“I always try to never take it that way. I always try to take it as: I played well here, so let’s find this year as well. This kind of mindset, this kind of game, it takes work to do it.”
Meanwhile Halep will need to return on Friday to battle for her place in the last four.
“I felt that I cannot finish the points,” a frustrated Halep said afterwards.