Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki failed to get her campaign under way in the White Group at the 2018 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global on Sunday, falling to Karolina Pliskova at the first hurdle.
I think I was struggling a little bit with the timing in some of the points and just trying to find my rhythm. I think there were times where I played really well, and I was trying to move her around, but there were also times when I just didn't time the ball perfectly, and it didn't go the way I wanted. I had I think break points in almost every single of her service games and I didn't get any one of them. Caroline Wozniacki
Wozniacki has made history for her country in more ways than one at the WTA Finals, becoming the first player from Denmark to qualify for the event in 2009, and having made 5 other appearances at the season-ending event.
By her own admission, she has stood the test of time, seeing many of her generation of players come and go, while she has managed to hang on in a game that has changed and evolved over the 9 years since her debut at the year-end finale.
With the exception of 2011, she has come through the group stages, and last year was her biggest title win to date, catapulting her to her first Grand Slam title in Australia in January.
Wozniacki rode the momentum of a late 2017 season surge all the way to victory at the Singapore Indoor Stadium and after the 28-year-old won her second China Open title earlier this month, she will be hoping for a similar outcome this time.
The WTA Championships features the leading 8 players in the Porsche Race to Singapore, split into two groups of four played in round robin format, so a loss at this stage is a set-back but not curtains.
The top two players on points from each round-robin group will progress to the semi-finals, with the final on 28 October.
First on the Sunday schedule, however, was 4th-seeded Petra Kvitova against Elina Svitolina, the No 6 seed, also in the White Group, and although the Czech led the head-to-heads 7-1 going into the match, she found herself in immediate trouble.
Kvitova’s comeback from the knife attack in December 2016, which threatened to end her career, was nothing short of miraculous, and she reached the final on her last time out here in 2015.
This has been an outstanding year for Kvitova, who has come full circle since December 2017, and she has won the most titles this season, logging the longest winning streak of 14 matches in a row amongst that spree of titles, but her consistency has since waned a little.
Svitolina, the first player from the Ukraine to qualify for the Finals, can be very tricky but has been struggling for form of late.
Her participation in Singapore came down to the wire, initially qualifying as Kiki Bertens was knocked out early in Moscow, and she had half an eye on Zhuhai, which hosts the WTA Elite Trophy, which is the second-tier year-end professional women’s tennis tournament on the WTA Tour.
“It was until the last moment almost we didn’t know,” she told the media. “But, you know, I was just trying to really don’t think so much about it.
Of course, it was in my mind, but, you know, I was preparing to play in Zhuhai, actually [smiling].
“I would be more sad if I would be preparing to play here and then not got in. That’s why I was, like, okay, I’m going to play in Zhuhai.”
Making her second appearance in Singapore, Svitolina produced an impressive 6-3 6-3 win over the Czech in her opener by nullifying Kvitova’s dangerous serve in the first set, and breaking the two-time Wimbledon champion three times on her way to claiming the opener.
Despite the same scoreline, the second set proved a tighter affair, with Svitolina catching the only break in the 6th game before clinching victory on her first match point to end her 7 match losing run against Kvitova.
The Czech’s first serve percentage was a meagre 55, and without her most potent weapon firing, it was nigh impossible for Kvitova to find answers to Svitolina’s offence.
In a lacklustre performance, Kvitova double-faulted 7 times in the match, including on set point in the first, and 6 of her 7 double faults came in that set, coupled with 29 unforced errors overall.
The Czech surrendered her serve in the opening game of the match but managed to recoup the break in the next game, only to be broken twice again to fall behind.
Svitolina set up the second set win by breaking Kvitova’s serve to go ahead 4-2 and cruised to the finish line against an opponent who never settled in the 1 hour, 29-minute match.
“It’s very nice to be back in Singapore and I’m very, very happy with the match tonight, with the performance tonight,” Svitolina told the crowd.
“I had to stay focused and be strong mentally. I had to play quickly and keep moving my feet so I need a massage now.
“You have to play your best level because everybody is very strong playing here.”
Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova’s participation in this year’s WTA Finals means the Czech Republic have had at least one player compete every year since 2011 when Kvitova became the third Czech player to win the title, along with Martina Navratilova (1978, 1979) and Jana Novotna (1997).
Later, Svitolina admitted to feeling under the weather in her press conference: “I’m just not feeling good,” the red-eyed Ukrainian said after taking a short break to recover from what was described as a sudden bout of light-headedness.
Moments earlier, Svitolina had sounded confident about her chances to make the semi-finals in her second WTA Finals appearance, dropping serve just once to end Kvitova’s streak of 12 straight sets won against her.
“Definitely was very important for me. You know, winning this match, definitely gives me lots of confidence,” she told reporters.
“I mean, this win definitely now I want to take, you know, as one to go forward, and for all those people and haters that were saying that I don’t deserve to be here and I’m not good.
“So, yeah, I think this, until the next match I can really enjoy this win.”
In terms of opening matches, Caroline Wozniacki trailed Karolina Pliskova in their overall head-to-head, 6-3, but won their last meeting at the semi-final stage in Singapore last year.
Pliskova has been pretty consistent throughout the year, winning the title and a car she had no licence to drive in Stuttgart, and reaching the quarter-finals of the US open.
Her Asian swing gave her some momentum in the chase for the final berths in Singapore and, like Svitolina, her place was secured when Bertens fell early in Moscow, which was a relief for Pliskova, who had a horror of a trip back to Europe, losing in the first round to home crowd favourite Vera Zvonareva.
The faster court in Singapore favoured Kvitova, who sported strapping on her right calf but raced out of the blocks as Wozniacki was clearly off her game, finding herself chasing the match after she fell behind early.
Pliskova bolted to a double-break 4-1 lead before capping the first set with a powerful service game after just 36 minutes.
Calling for her coach, Wozniack listened to her father say: “The current situation – it is what it is. You can come back if will play what you prefer to play. She serves you flat on your forehand, from both sides. You need take them earlier, you need to feel that.”
The Czech World No 8 then broke in the opening game of the second set and unleashed a fine forehand winner for a 2-0 lead.
Wozniacki dug deep, and nearly levelled proceedings for 4-all, only to go down 2-3, and had to serve to stay in the fight at 3-5, saving 2 match points before holding to narrow the gap.
She conjured up 2 break points in the next but Pliskova held firm on both, forcing the Wozniacki onto the back foot to net a backhand and then serving an ace to win on her third match point, 6-2 6-4 in an hour and 28 minutes.
“It’s always tough matches against Caroline,” Pliskova said on-court after the match
“The last time we played was here, and I remember the first set was more than an hour, and I had set points.
“I believed I had a chance because we had a very good match here last year and I tried my best today.”
The Czech former World No 1 won 5 straight games in a dominant opening set, and her patented serve came to her rescue as she saved all 10 break points she faced in the match, including the two in the final game, which would have seen the Dane draw level.
“I felt pretty good from the baseline today, so not only just my serve,” she added.
“I think the game was pretty solid from my side. I think she started a little bit nervous because it’s always tough to defend a title.
“I was just happy with my performance today. I was really enjoying tonight.”
It was an unsettling start for the World No 2, who saw her first 2 break points chances pass by in Pliskova’s opening service game.
Despite hitting more winners than Pliskova in the opening set, with 10 to the Czech’s 8, 9 unforced to Pliskova’s 6 and an 0-for-4 stat line on break points set back the Dane’s cause.
Pliskova saved 2 more break points in the 6th game of the match and, after serving out the opener, her momentum continued with a 3rd break of the Dane’s serve to start the second set.
“I think I was struggling a little bit with the timing in some of the points and just trying to find my rhythm,” Wozniacki explained in her post-match media conference.
“I think there were times where I played really well, and I was trying to move her around, but there were also times when I just didn’t time the ball perfectly, and it didn’t go the way I wanted.
“I had I think break points in almost every single of her service games and I didn’t get any one of them.
“That was kind of disappointing, and I think if I had gotten some of them, the outcome could have been different. But it wasn’t to be today. I’ll just have to go back and practice tomorrow, get some shots in, and try to do better next time.”
Still, the No 2 seed took positives from Sunday night’s clash, feeling there was plenty she could apply in her next match against rival Petra Kvitova.
“I think I played well at the net. I think the short balls that I got I think I played well.
“There were some rallies that I think I constructed very well. There was a lot of good thoughts there, some of them that didn’t work out, but at least I was doing the right thing.
“So there were some positives I can take with me. Just execution needs to be better for the next one.”
Pliskova said in her post-match conference: “… feels different [than last year]. Maybe I’m too slow, but the court feels a little bit faster than last year… Maybe Moscow was too slow for me somehow. Maybe compared to Moscow it’s just fast.
“But I felt okay in those practices. I just had two so it’s not much. I felt okay. I didn’t feel that slow”.
Czech fans found some reasons to celebrate after Kvitova surrendered to Svitolina in a surprisingly one-sided clash.
Since 2015, The Czech Republic has brought the highest number of players, in both singles and doubles, to the WTA Finale
“I think for a country it’s amazing,” Pliskova added.
“They [the fans] are just following all the tournaments pretty much a lot, and especially if there are Czech players. It means a lot for them.
“And obviously, by having also a successful team in Fed Cup, it means a lot.”
Pliskova is in Singapore with her fiancé Michal Hrdlicka, her agent Katerina Stecova and part-time coach Rennae Stubbs.
Round robin group play concludes on Friday, with the semi-finals and final taking place next weekend in the fifth and final running of the event in Singapore before it heads to Shenzhen in China for a 10-year run from 2019.
In the Red Group on Monday, Japan’s US Open champion plays American Sloane Stephens, while top seed Angelique Kerber, from Germany, meets the Netherlands’ Kiki Bertens.
To watch the live action, go to BT Sport or WTAtv.com.