Singapore | Pliskova and Muguruza take early leads
The WTA Finals kicked-off in Singapore on Sunday with Karolina Pliskova taking on Venus Williams and the No 1 World Ranking up for grabs.
It is the 47th edition of the year-ending championships of the WTA Tour, now known as BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
As has been the case several times this season, the No 1 ranking is on the line again and the fact that seven of the eight players can walk away from the tournament with the top spot means the stakes are higher than ever.
I think the score looks a little bit easier than it was. I think it was very tough from the baseline. We were both playing very fast and pretty good shots.
There are no easy matches here in Singapore, so you have to be ready from the first point. That’s what I was trying to do, and it worked.Karolina Pliskova
The entire field, except Caroline Garcia, can finish the year at the summit of the standings and the players aren’t shying away from the prospect.
“It [the No. 1 ranking] is important, I’m not going to lie but I know I have to play well,” says Garbiñe Muguruza, who spent four weeks at No 1 before Simona Halep replaced her earlier this month.
“I’m happy that I got it in the past, and now I’m not that nervous or obsessed.”
Halep echoed Muguruza’s thoughts saying: “I think for everyone it is the most important thing to finish the year No.1, but it is not going to be easy.”
Pliskova, who spent eight weeks at No 1, said: “This tournament is really going to decide who is going to finish the year world number one. I think everybody has a good chance.”
If the 37-year-old Venus pulls it off, she would return to the top of the rankings for the first time since July 2002.
Elina Svitolina and Lelena Ostapenko are the only two No 1 contenders who have not made it to the top before.
The eight-woman field is split into two groups playing on a round robin basis and it was the White Group that was in action on Day 1.
Pliskova was first on court and she made an emphatic statement by defeating Venus Williams in just over an hour, surrendering just four games to defeat the rusty American, 6-2 6-2.
With the victory, the No 3 seed stands at 1-0 in the round robin format, while the No 5 seed starts off at 0-1.
Emphatic in all parts of the 72-minute encounter, Pliskova won nearly 70% of the points played on her own serve and broke the American five times – a far cry from the dramatic, 4-6 6-4 7-6(3) victory the Czech recorded in the match-up last summer at the US Open.
Cracking a staggering 25 winners to double up against her 12 unforced errors, Pliskova earned the victory on her fourth match point, denying Williams a chance to navigate out of a final service game in which she battled back from 0-40.
“I think my serve was pretty good today, but could be better. Some aces I hit, that’s why I won,” the Czech said on-court after the match.
“I think the score looks a little bit easier than it was. I think it was very tough from the baseline. We were both playing very fast and pretty good shots.
“There are no easy matches here in Singapore, so you have to be ready from the first point. That’s what I was trying to do, and it worked.”
The Czech jumped out to an early lead, setting the tone with a break in Williams’ first service game of the match.
Although the American got the first set back on serve on her first opportunity, a love break in the sixth game quickly restored order on Pliskova’s side of the net.
Making just four unforced errors over the first 32 minutes, Pliskova added a third break of the American’s serve to wrap up a one-set lead, 6-2.
The American staved off losing serve for a third straight time in her opening game of the second set, saving a break point to draw level at 1-1.
The longest game of the match followed, as Pliskova saved a pair of chances which would have seen Williams take her first lead of the match, holding on after five deuces to stay in front.
The third seed broke for the fourth time in the fourth game of the set, as a pair of love holds helped her move one game away from victory.
Williams battled hard, saving a break point to stay in touch for 4-2 and three match points in the final game, but Pliskova would not be denied and started her WTA Finals campaign with a win for the second straight year.
Next up came Muguruza and Ostapenko and it was the World No 2 and Wimbledon champion who successfully opened her campaign with a straight sets victory over the 7th-seeded Latvian, 6-3 6-4.
It was a hard-hitting affair, with solid returning by both players the order of the day, but Muguruza held onto early leads in both sets to advance.
The Spaniard scored a 1-0 record in the White Group, claiming the only round-robin match between two of this year’s Grand Slam champions.
Both of their previous matches this season went three sets, but Muguruza defeated the reigning French Open champion here in one hour and 25 minutes, avenging her loss to Ostapenko at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan earlier this month.
After an exchange of breaks early in the set, Muguruza claimed a decisive break for 3-1 after Ostapenko double faulted twice in a row to concede the game.
The Latvian struggled to keep her second serve from being attacked, and won only 1 of 9 second serve points in the opening set.
She was able to pull the set back on serve to 4-3, after a long game which saw Muguruza reach game point from triple break point down.
The Spaniard finally succumbed on the fourth break point against her when she slapped a forehand unforced error into the net.
Muguruza won the final two games of the set on the trot, breaking Ostapenko one more time for a 5-3 lead, and then ramping up the effectiveness on her forehand to hold for a one-set lead, with just 5 unforced errors to her name.
The second set followed a similar pattern to the first, as Ostapenko’s risky play let her down, and Muguruza’s more consistent heavy hitting with greater margin allowed her to grab an early lead.
Forehand errors by Ostapenko down break point in both of her first two service games of the set led Muguruza to a 4-1, double-break lead, which felt unassailable, but, again, the Latvian held firm as the set approached finality, using her brutal forehand to break Muguruza when the Spaniard served for the match at 5-2.
Despite a dipping first serve percentage, Muguruza held her nerve long enough to serve it out at 5-4, reaching double match point after an Ostapenko backhand went meekly into the net.
Two forehand unforced errors brought the game back to deuce, but a backhand unforced error into the net by Ostapenko, punctuated by a squeal of frustration, gave Muguruza a third chance.
An exceptional forehand down the line was too much for the Latvian to handle, and Muguruza clinched her victory with a sigh of relief.
It was an impressive performance from the elegant Spaniard, who is looking every inch a champion.
“At the end of the match she was making the most of her last opportunities but I managed to stay composed and turn it around,” Muguruza said.
“She is so young and confident so I knew it was going to be difficult.”
The Red Group contains current World No 1 Simona Halep of Romania, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, Dane Caroline Wozniacki and Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, with the first matches in that pool taking place on Monday.