Nobody expected to see Caroline Garcia in the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, least of all herself.
The Frenchwoman pulled off a stunning double by winning Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back and was on an 11-match winning streak, thus finding herself among the elite 8 competing for the year-end honours.
Playing in the Red Group, the big-hitter faced the current World No 1, Simona Halep, whom she beat in Beijing a few weeks ago.
Halep got the monkey off her back when she finally got her hands on the top ranking after several frustrated attempts, thwarted in Paris by Jelena Ostapenko, at Wimbledon at the hands of Johanna Konta, during the US Open Series by Garbiñe Muguruza in Cincinnati, and then by Maria Sharapova in the opening round of the US Open.
Actually, it's the first tournament I come as the No 1 in the world and I am really happy I can win the first match. It takes the pressure off. I enjoy being in this position and hopefully I can play better in my second match than I did today. Simona Halep
Her run to the China Open final, with a dominant 6-2 6-4 victory over Latvia’s Ostapenko in Beijing avenging her defeat in Paris, secured the deal, although she did not win the title, losing to Garcia.
The 26-year-old took over the top spot from Spain’s Muguruza on 7 October, becoming the first Romanian to head the WTA rankings.
“It’s very emotional, I think it’s the first time I cried on court,” Halep admitted.
“It’s amazing that I could do this. My team, everyone at home… is watching, and I want to thank everyone. It’s my special day.”
A couple of short weeks later, the pack is closing in again on the World No 1, with 7 of the 8 contenders in Singapore in with a chance of securing the year-end ranking.
Since the advent of computerised rankings in 1975, 25 women have held the No 1 ranking but only 12 have finished the season as the year-end No 1.
With up to 1,500 points up for grabs this week, the magnificent 7 have just 1,165 points separating them and everything to play for in the round robin competition.
Garcia, once tipped by Andy Murray as a future World No 1, is the only one not among the chasing pack, but she is certainly worthy of her spot in Singapore, playing with a maturity that belies her inexperience.
She made the World No 1 work for it early on, with the second game of the match lasting eight minutes and 45 seconds before Halep finally managed to hold serve.
In a match-up of contrasting styles and sizes, with the 1.77m Frenchwoman holding a 9cm height advantage over the Romanian, Garcia attempted to dictate through her powerful ground strokes.
She also mixed up her game with an array of deft drop shots and volleying to force Halep onto her back foot, but Halep’s famed defensive prowess and precision hitting soon told and she broke to love in the fifth game.
The two traded breaks of serve soon after, until Halep broke again in the ninth game, and then served it out in another nerve-wracking game to win the first set.
Long games had dominated the first set, which took 48 minutes and took a physical toll on both players.
Halep shrugged it off to dominate play in the second, winning five consecutive points to come back from 0-40 down to hold serve in the fourth game before closing out the match with 13 winners, including 4 aces, to only 11 unforced errors.
Garcia also had 13 winners, but those were negated by 18 unforced errors, and the Frenchwoman only converted one break point out of eight opportunities.
She played her part well, though, as Halep’s superiority prevailed and the Romanian eventually won through, 6-4 6-2, in just under an hour and a half.
“Actually, it’s the first tournament I come as the No 1 in the world and I am really happy I can win the first match,” said Halep, “It takes the pressure off.
“I enjoy being in this position and hopefully I can play better in my second match than I did today.”
Halep was broken just the once, surrendering her serve when she double-faulted at 15-40 in the sixth game of the first set, but she saved five other break points.
Making her fourth consecutive appearance at the WTA Finals, Halep was a finalist in 2014, losing to then-No. 1 Serena Williams in what was to prove to be the last time the top-ranked player won the season-ending event.
Halep opened her campaign with a 1-0 score in the Red Group, while Garcia goes down 0-1: “It was a great match, I played my best tennis and it’s never easy against Caroline after she beat me in Beijing, but I did well and I love competing here in Singapore,” she added.
“She’s very difficult to play against and I knew how the match was going to be because we played two weeks ago, but also I had in mind the match from Toronto when I won against her, and today I think I played similar to that match.
“I just felt that in the beginning she’s very consistent and very strong, but then in the second set, I started to feel that I dominated the match and I got more confidence.”
Halep is not armed with the most powerful of serves so her strongest assets remain movement around the court and retrieving abilities, skills she utilised to full effect in the 88-minute triumph over Garcia.
“My footwork is really important and today I was really strong on the legs,” she continued.
“I stayed very low because she hits it pretty flat, and the ball here on this court doesn’t jump too much. So I had to stay low. And also, I was running very well.
“I work more on this when I’m home but I don’t exaggerate. I just have it naturally but the most important thing is to be fresh before any tournament.”
The second match on Day 2 pitched Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki against the talented Elina Svitolina, the first player from the Ukraine to make it to the year-end championships.
Wozniacki is an old hand and making her fifth appearance at the WTA Finals.
In fact, she is a former finalist at the event, having reached the championship match in 2010 when the tournament was held in Doha.
Additionally, the 27-year-old has posted two semi-finals results at the WTA Finals, on her debut in 2009 and her most recent display in 2014.
A former World No 1, who had lost all six of her previous finals this year, she stormed through to win in Tokyo a few weeks back.
“It was my seventh final this year and obviously after a while it gets harder and harder,” said Wozniacki.
“I’ve won here in the past and it has great memories for me so I’m happy I was able to stay focused and aggressive.”
Victory in Japan brought Wozniacki the 26th title of her career and ensured she continued her run of having won at least one WTA tournament every year since 2008.
Fourth-seeded Svitolina came into the match-up with a 3-0 lead in the head-to-head against Wozniacki, but her WTA Finals debut will be one to forget after limply losing 6-2 6-0.
The Dane was in impressive form in the opening set, winning it in a little over half an hour.
Making her debut appearance at the WTA Finals, having clinched a tour-leading five WTA singles titles this season including the Taiwan Open (Taipei City), Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup, Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome), and the Rogers Cup (Toronto), Svitolina simply failed to settle into her opener.
The 23-year old reached her second Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros this year and has earned herself a Top 5 debut, but she had no answers for the Dane’s consistency on this occasion.
At 0-3 down, the Ukrainian looked exhausted and out of ideas. Not even an on-court motivational talk from her coach, Britain’s Andrew Bettles, could turn her mind-set around.
By contrast, Wozniacki’s sense of purpose was relentless as she sped to a set and 5-0 lead and Svitolina’s wilting resistance continued its nosedive.
A rare glimpse of the force the Ukrainian can muster was all too brief and the weak drop shot into the net and drive volley bouncing off the top of the net way over the sideline that followed said it all – not Svitolina’s day at all, as Wozniacki progressed after just 58 minutes of play.
Svitolina was broken 5 times, winning just one point of 12 second serves delivered, and appeared confused by the court speed and Wozniacki’s solid game.
The Dane hit 16 winners against just 5 unforced errors, and scored her first win over Svitolina after losses this year in Toronto and Dubai, both in straight sets, and last year at Miami in the third set tie-break.
Wozniacki will face Halep on Wednesday, while Svitolina, who now needs to seriously regroup, plays Garcia.