The second match of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Tuesday saw No 1 seed Kiki Bertens take on Donna Vekic in the Azalea Group.
It's really in me that I always want to win Kiki Bertens
They are familiar foes and this was their seventh meeting, with the series split 3-3, although the Dutchwoman held a 3-2 edge on the WTA Tour, including 3 wins in their last 4 meetings.
Vekic had lost her last 6 matches against Top 10 players and she was destined to lose this one too, falling to Berten’s intense will to win.
“It’s really in me that I always want to win,” Bertens said after battling past Vekic, 7-6(5) 6-2, in a match in which she had to draw on all of her reserves to get through.
It was an arduous win over the No 8 seed Donna Vekic in an hour and 59 minutes to open her Elite Trophy campaign.
The pair have delivered some of this season’s most dramatic highlights across the continents and seasons: Vekic saved 2 match points to oust Bertens in the second round of Brisbane 7-6(5) 1-6, 7-5 in the first week of the year, but was unable to close out their Beijing opener 3 weeks ago despite serving for it, with Bertens squeezing through 3-6,6-1 7-6(3).
In between, the Dutchwoman captured her maiden indoor title in St Petersburg by beating Vekic 7-6(2) 6-4 in the final, and on this day, emerged victorious for a 3rd consecutive time to take a 4-3 lead in the overall series.
There was little between the two in the first act until the very end, with the first 4 games taking 28 minutes to complete.
At the end of the opening set it was Vekic who had the upper hand, unleashing the full ferocity of her forehand and finishing points superbly at net.
The Croat had broken Bertens in the opening game and then toughed out two mini-epic holds, both of which had ended after 4 deuces with the Dutchwoman netting easy put-aways on the drive volley and overhead.
Bertens, playing her 7th consecutive week across 2 continents after attempting to chase down a spot at next week’s Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, did not dwell on either the disappointment of failing in that quest or in her poor start today.
“I really had that goal in mind and now it was a little bit gone,” as Bertens put it afterwards when discussing how she is continuing to push herself.
“But still, once I’m on court I want to win – and this tournament. I still want to win. [It’s] really in me that I always want to win, so I think that’s my drive.”
She gathered herself superbly to battle back, withstanding Vekic’s rampant shotmaking to focus on executing the basics on key points.
A first ace staved off a point for Vekic to go up a double break, with a neat forehand angle sealing the hold.
The Croat carelessly lost control of her forehand in the next game for Bertens to get back on serve, and the 27-year-old needed little further encouragement to turn the match into a battle of wills, and serves.
Bertens’ renowned delivery was crucial to her comeback.
Under pressure again in the 7th game, she saved 3 break points, 2 with simple one-two punches, and closed out the hold with 3 consecutive service winners to move ahead for the first time.
Although both players were now sufficiently grooved on serve to post 5 straight holds without another break and it was again Bertens who out-competed Vekic on the bigger points to squeeze through the tiebreak.
Down 4-5, the 2016 Roland Garros semi-finalist came up with a brace of brilliant backhands down the line before an errant Vekic forehand sealed the set.
“The first set was really tight, so it was just a few points here and there,” recalled Bertens afterwards. “I just was trying to push myself all the time.
“It was tough, I would say, mentally but also physically. We were both struggling, I think, a little bit. But from 5-4 down I played two really good points.”
That wing, so electrifying in the early stages, would be largely responsible for the 23-year-old falling away abruptly in the second set.
Unable to find the court with it when she most needed to, Vekic dropped serve 3 times in a row, twice from game point up, while making an ever-decreasing impact on the Bertens serve to fall behind 0-5.
Bertens, meanwhile, continued to rack up the aces, tallying 8 in total, as well as showcasing some remarkable defensive play.
There was a minor stumble at the finishing line as Vekic managed to break and get 2 games on the board, but at her second attempt to serve out the win, Bertens was impeccable in sending down booming first serves to post a love hold.
Meanwhile, former No 1 and 22-time major champion Stefanie Graf is in China as the Elite Trophy Ambassador, and she has been talking to reporters, duly impressed by World No 1 Ashleigh Barty’s rapid rise to the top of the rankings since her title run in Zhuhai last autumn.
“Ashleigh Barty, she did so well here last year and to have seen her pull her last year-and-a-half together the way she has, has been a whole lot of fun,” Graf told reporters.
Less than 12 months ago, the Australian captured the biggest title of her career in Zhuhai and rode that momentum to an incredible 2019 season, which saw her win her first major title at Roland Garros, her first Premier Mandatory title at the Miami Open, qualify for her first Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in singles, and now sit on the brink of becoming the first Australian WTA Year-End No 1.