Zhuhai | Bertens leads challenge for Elite Trophy
Serena Williams will not be featuring in either of the year-ending WTA Tour championships, having been displaced by Belinda Benic at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen over the weekend, and declining her spot in the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai that takes place this week.
It's going to be really tough, I think two really tough matches but I'll just going to try and finish the season as good as I can and then we see Kiki Bertens
The rest of the top 20 or so players, however, will be competing for honours, starting this week in China, despite a few absentees.
As the last few spots were secured for the 5th Elite Trophy Zhuhai, set to take place from 22-27 October, Britain’s Johanna Konta also withdrew because of a knee injury.
The British No 1 has not played since losing to Elina Svitolina in the US Open quarter-finals in early September.
Her withdrawal from the Elite Trophy next week, the second-tier end-of-season event for those top-20 players who missed out on a spot at the WTA Finals, brings a close to her 2019 season.
While it is disappointing for Konta, who began the year ranked 39 and is currently sitting 11th after reaching the last 8 at both the US Open and Wimbledon and playing her third Grand Slam semi-final at the French Open, the 28-year-old will hope to pick up where she left off by pushing into the top 10 next year.
Having also reached the final of the Italian Open in Rome on what had previously been seen by some to be her weakest surface, Konta is now focusing on rehabilitation of the injury ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on 20 January.
A total of 12 players are included in the Elite Trophy field, competing for a total prize money of over $2.4 million.
These are the next-best also-rans who missed out on a spot in the WTA Championships the following week.
The event features both singles and doubles, and is being staged in the southern Chinese coastal city of Zhuhai at the custom designed and state-of-the-art Zhuhai Hengqin International Tennis Centre.
The players will compete in 4 round robin groups of 3, with the winners of each group advancing to the semi-finals.
The 6 doubles teams will be split into 2 round robin groups, with the winner of each advancing to the final.
Last year, Ashleigh Barty won the biggest title of her career to date in Zhuhai, scooping US$700,000 and hitting a career-best mark of world No15 after winning her last three matches over Caroline Garcia, Julia Goerges and Wang Qiang, and marking the start of her incredible run to the top spot.
At the time, the current World No 1 said: “I feel like I’m a top-20 player. I obviously would love to push towards top 10, but it was really important to me to prove to myself that all the work that I’ve done with my team, and the foundations we’ve set up, are working. And they are.
“It’s a different pressure [being a top-20 player]. I don’t think it’s better or worse – it’s just different. We’ve done a great job this year of learning to deal with that.”
In just one year Barty not only broke into the top 10 but made it all the way to the top.
Barty will be headlining the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen from 27 October, while those competing in Zhuhai will be looking to emulate the popular Aussie’s recent spectacular form.
The Elite Trophy has served as a springboard for success, not only for last year’s champion, but also for Karolina Pliskova, another player whose elite roots can be traced back to Zhuhai.
The Czech was a finalist in the inaugural edition in 2015, losing to Venus Williams, and went on to make her Top 10 debut the following season.
In all, of the 8 women who made the finals of the last 4 editions, 5 went on to make their Top 10 debuts within 12 months:
Karolina Pliskova, 2015 finalist
Elina Svitolina, 2016 finalist
Julia Goerges, 2017 champion
CoCo Vandeweghe, 2017 finalist
Ashleigh Barty, 2018 champion
In addition, last year’s finalist Qiang Wang reached a career-high ranking of No 12 this season and made her first major quarter-final at the US Open, where she defeated Barty in the Round of 16.
Zhuhai has also been a fruitful venue for the tour’s great champions to bounce back from a prolonged slump.
For 2015 champion Venus Williams, the event remains her biggest title since 2015 Wuhan and the American legend enjoyed a resurgent season in 2017, where she made two major finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and qualified for her first WTA Finals since 2009, finishing the year at No 5.
2016 champion Petra Kvitova finished that season ranked No 11 and said despite the hand injury that followed in the off-season due to a violent attack in her home, she continued to build on the confidence gained from her 2016 finish to enjoy two of the best seasons of her career in 2018, where she returned to the Top 10, capturing a tour-best five titles that year.
World No 3 and reigning WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina found the round-robin event prepared her well for the WTA Finals.
Svitolina played the event twice, making the semi-finals in 2015 and the final in 2016, where she lost to Kvitova.
The Ukrainian followed up her 2016 final by making her Top 10 debut the following season and becoming the first player to win 3 Premier 5 events in a single season (2017 Dubai, 2017 Rome, 2017 Toronto).
“I really enjoyed playing it. It’s just like other big events that you want to play well. It’s a very interesting group draw. I think it’s little like a small preparation for the WTA Finals. It was at that time.
“I think definitely it gave me the small step and small push towards where I was going.”
Last week, the latest players to qualify for the Zhuhai draw were Elise Mertens, Alison Riske and Donna Vekic, who joined Aryna Sabalenka, Sofia Kenin, Madison Keys and Petra Martic in the draw.
Both Martic and Kenin are making their debut appearances in Zhuhai this year, while Sabalenka is returning for her second visit, and Keys is competing for the third time in her career at the Hengqin Tennis Center.
Ranked No 16 this week, Belarusian Sabalenka made her Zhuhai debut in 2018 but failed to advance to the singles semi-final stage.
American Keys, who captured her first career Premier 5 title at Cincinnati this season after hoisting her first career clay court title at Charleston earlier in the year, is making her third trip to Zhuhai, having also qualified in 2015 and 2018.
Rising American star Sofia Kenin, has already won 3 WTA singles titles in addition to reaching 4 finals at the tender age of 20.
Kenin began the Asian swing by competing in the Zhengzhou Open, and won her third title of the year at the Guangzhou Open, defeating 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur in the final, with her ranking climbing to a career-high of No 17.
After reaching her first major quarter-final at the 2019 Roland Garros, Croatia’s Petra Martic carried her momentum into the start of the Asian Swing, reaching her first premier-level final at Zhengzhou.
Belgian No 1 Mertens returns to Zhuhai for her second time, having also qualified last year and earning her place after defeating 3 Top 10 players en route to claim the biggest title of her career at the Qatar Total Open, as well as advancing to the quarter-finals at the US Open.
American Riske has enjoyed her best season to date, highlighted by reaching her career first Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon and advancing to the biggest final of her career at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, helping her make her Top 20 debut.
Croatia’s Vekic will make her tournament debut in Zhuhai following 2 finals this season, at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy and the Nature Valley Open in Nottingham, and reaching her career first Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open to earn herself a career-high ranking of World No 21 in September.
The Elite Trophy is being staged for the first time ahead of the WTA Finals, with final slots determined over the weekend as Maria Sakkari, Dayana Yastremska and Karolina Mucho completed the lineup following the withdrawals of Serena Williams, Konta (knee injury), Angelique Kerber (leg injury) and Marketa Vondrousova (left wrist injury).
World No 36 Zheng Saisai gained the only wild card for the women’s singles after a breakthrough season in which she captured her first WTA title at San Jose, defeating World No 10 Sabalenka in straight sets in the final to become only the second Chinese player to win a tournament after Li Na.
“I think all the players of the new generation are making unremitting efforts to catch up with those top players, but we still need time,” said the 22-year old Zheng.
Situated in the Pearl River Delta, one of the most developed areas in China, Zhuhai enjoys a beautiful city view and the most convenient traffic.
With the recently completed Hong Kong–Macau-Zhuhai sea bridge, it only takes 30 minutes by car from Hong Kong airport to reach the venue on Henqin Island in Zhuhai, right next door to Macau.
Stefanie Graf, 22-time Grand Slam winner and Golden Slam achiever, continues as the tournament global ambassador for the 4th consecutive year and, yet again, will have an on-site presence throughout the event.
A new champion is guaranteed in 2019 as the 12 qualifying players were placed in the 4 round robin groups in Monday’s draw ceremony.
Headlined by World No 10 Bertens, and two former Top 10 players in Keys and Sabalenka, the field was divided into 4 flower-themed groups: Azaela, Camellia, Orchid and Rose.
“It’s really nice to be here with all the girls and try to finish the season strong,” Bertens told the media. “It’s just another opportunity for everyone.
“It’s just the last week and everyone just wants to try and finish as good.
”You for sure have two matches, which makes it fun I think also. Let’s see what everyone still can bring and hopefully we can play some good matches.
“I played Donna a few times this year and [she’s a] great player, of course, and same with Dayana.
“It’s going to be really tough, I think two really tough matches but I’ll just going to try and finish the season as good as I can and then we see.”
Two countries boast multiple qualifiers, with a trio of Americans and a pair of Croatians featuring in the four groups.
No 1 Kiki Bertens (NED)
No 8 Donna Vekic (CRO)
No 10 Dayana Yastremska (UKR)
No 2 Sofia Kenin (USA)
No 7 Alison Riske (USA)
No 11 Karolina Muchova (CZE)
No 3 Madison Keys (USA)
No 5 Petra Martic (CRO)
WC Zheng Saisai (CHN)
No 4 Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)
No 6 Elise Mertens (BEL)
No 9 Maria Sakkari (GRE)
Play begins in Zhuhai on Tuesday and viewers in the UK can watch all the action on BT Sport.
For the majority of the tournament, coverage will be on BT Sport 1, beginning at 8am, with BT Sport 2 taking over next weekend.
The BT Sport enhanced video player is available to subscribers online, while EE mobile customers will be able to stream the tennis for free, thanks to a subscription plan announced by the network: “To say thanks for being with us, here’s a special sporting treat for our pay monthly mobile and tablet customers: three months’ free BT Sport on your EE phone and connected tablet.”
Just text SPORT to 150, register for a BT ID then download the BT Sport app or visit the EE website for more information on the BT Sports offer.