Venus Williams prevailed over Jelena Ostapenko, 7-5 6-7(3) 7-5, in one of the longest three-set matches ever played at the WTA Finals.
It took her 3 hours and 13 minutes to finish the job on Tuesday, making it the second-longest match at the finals in Singapore and the third-longest at the finals overall.
The only ones longer were a 3 hour and 29-minute match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Sara Errani in Turkey in 2012, and an encounter between Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova here in 2014 that lasted 3 hours and 14 minutes.
In a see-saw battle from the outset, the competitors broke each other’s serve a total of 20 times and many other games went to multiple deuce points.
Sometimes you need some luck. I don't know if I had any tonight as I had to work for every point. It's not easy when you lose the first match. Both of us were in the same situation and you have to fight, what else can you do, to live another day. Venus Williams
Ostapenko was at one stage leading 5-4 and serving for the first set, but a powerful effort from Williams in the 10th game held her opponent to love and levelled it up.
The American then won the next two games to take the set, with an unforced error count of 17-8 against the Latvian.
Williams broke Ostapenko’s serve again early in the second set on the fourth advantage point, but the Latvian broke back immediately, winning the next two games.
The roller-coaster nature of the contest continued, with Williams levelling the set at 3-3 to get back on track, and then blowing a match-point two games later.
The set went to a tiebreak, which quickly turned sour for Williams as she failed to win a point on serve and double-faulted, then launching an ill-advised challenge to go down, three points to seven.
Ostapenko is the WTA’s tour leader in three-set match wins, and she headed into her 27th deciding set of the season.
Williams broke her serve in the fifth game of the final set, but Ostapenko levelled it at 4-4 and then came back again from 0-40 down in the next game.
The American, aged 37, eventually held on for an exceptionally gritty victory over the youngest player in the draw.
“Sometimes you need some luck. I don’t know if I had any tonight as I had to work for every point,” Williams said in her court side interview.
“It’s not easy when you lose the first match. Both of us were in the same situation and you have to fight, what else can you do, to live another day.”
Last spring, her sister, Serena Williams, announced she was pregnant and would not play for the rest of the season.
The woman who took the top ranking from her in 2016, Angelique Kerber, found it nigh impossible to defend her crown, leaving the WTA Tour’s No 1 spot up for grabs for whoever could claim it.
Since then, Karolina Pliskova, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Simona Halep have all claimed the top ranking for the first time but, as the women sprint for the finish line at the WTA Finals this week, the race is still wide open as 7 of the 8 players in action in Singapore have a chance to finish 2017 at No 1, with only the late-qualifier Caroline Garcia out of the running.
The mad scramble that is Singapore is currently being sorted in the group stages of the round robin.
On Day 3, it was the veteran Williams who outlasted the precocious Jelena Ostapenko to advance her chances in the group stages after a poor start on Sunday.
She first played this event in 1999, and last played it in 2009, and after being the surprise of this season, finds herself ranked at No 5 in the world.
While Venus didn’t win a Grand Slam this year, she did reach the finals in Melbourne and at Wimbledon, and the semi-finals at the US Open but hadn’t played since, displaying a degree of rustiness in her opener against Karolina Pliskova, which she lost in straight sets.
She looked way sharper in her second outing against the seventh-seeded Ostapenko, who is best known for romping through Paris in the spring.
She had been almost as good over the past few weeks, winning the title in Seoul and reaching the semis at the Premier and Premier Mandatory events in Wuhan and Beijing, respectively, and recording a win over Muguruza.
The 20-year-old also lost her opening match, to Muguruza, in this her WTA Finals debut and now, with two losses, looked to be going out of the tournament.
During the 69-minute third set, which included six consecutive breaks, Williams clinched the decisive break in the 11th game and then clinically held serve to outlast the Latvian.
It maintained Williams’ perfect record over Ostapenko, having won their only encounter earlier this year at Wimbledon.
The result will sting for Ostapenko who started brightly, working Williams around the court and hitting the lines with precision, notably several piercing cross-court winners.
The 20-year-old delivered 12 of the first 13 winners in the match before her confidence nosedived as she struggled with her serve.
Even though she had a major 48-26 advantage in winners, Ostapenko had only a 46 percent success rate with her first serve, and dished up 13 double faults.
The match was the best of the tournament thus far, and hopes that the next would deliver similar drama were not to be, when two former World No 1s in 2017 clashed – second-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza against Karolina Pliskova, ranked at No 3.
While Muguruza’s losing record against her White Group opponents belied her top ranking among them, she arrived in Singapore looking every inch the Wimbledon champion that she is, and oozing in confidence, but the Spaniard was 2-6 against Pliskova.
Although she has improved her defence and mobility by working hard, and is striking the ball with powerful accuracy, she did not bring this into play on this occasion.
While she is ranked below Simona Halep right now, Muguruza’s size and power make her the more logical year-end No 1 as well as the more likely No 1 in the future if she can grab this opportunity but she did not do herself justice, perhaps because of the lateness of the hour and the long wait to get onto court.
Of course, Pliskova, who unlike everyone else in her group has yet to win a major title, had the skills to thwart that quest and the situation was the same for her.
Despite also reaching No 1 this season, she fired her coach, David Kotzya, after he failed to put her in the winner’s circle at any of the four Grand Slams in 2017.
Instead, Pliskova is now working with former pro and current commentator Rennae Stubbs in Singapore.
Stubbs may not have the pedigree of other coaches, but she offers something that Pliskova seems to need in the latter stages of this season: a sense of fun, and a jolt of energy; and while judging from her 9-3 record against her group-mates, the Czech can certainly rise to a challenge, with a game that is big enough to go up against anyone’s.
In what proved to be a very short and rather disappointing match. Pliskova needed just an hour and two minutes to beat Muguruza, prevailing 6-2 6-2 and qualifying for the semi-finals for the first time ever, as the group winner.
The Spaniard had her left leg taped, didn’t move very well on court and looked nervous as the tall Czech dismissed her with searing winners and accurate serving.
In the first set Pliskova broke Muguruza in the second and eighth game, dominating play and in total control of the match.
In the opening game of the second set the Czech saved two break points and broke Muguruza again in the next after the Spaniard went up 40-15 only to lose the next four points in a row.
It was a dismal performance from the Spaniard, who had promised so much.
She did manage to save three match points at 0-5 down, breaking Pliskova to avoid the second set bagel, but it was short-lived and the Czech managed to break her back at 5-2 to win the encounter.
It was her seventh win in nine matches over Muguruza, who on Thursday must fight for a spot in the semi-finals against Venus Williams, while the result confirmed Ostapenko’s elimination from the competition, although she will still play the Czech to complete the group standings.
Muguruza has yet a chance to qualify for the semis, with everything on the line for both her and Williams as the two face off next.
“I think my tennis wasn’t there tonight, and, you know, I didn’t started playing well. She, you know, is very tough, such a great server. I don’t know if that’s the way you say it,” said Muguruza, who struggled throughout against the barrage, admitting that she was a little flat.
“I felt like during the match I couldn’t really found it, either. She really took advantage of that. And after, it was very hard to kind of catch her, because of her style of game.”
Meanwhile, Pliskova, who has dropped just four games in her two matches, marches solidly on.