Day 3 of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, south China, attracted a sparse attendance at 3pm local time, which contributed to a lack of atmosphere in the stadium as two of the best players in the world, Madison Keys and Petra Martic, ranked 13 and 15 respectively, battled it out in the Orchid Group.
I mean, at this point, I can only wait and see what happens with the match tomorrow. So, yeah, I think I'm just going to go and enjoy the city and the day Madison Keys
It was a pity, because the quality of tennis this week has been of a high calibre, and it begs question of the merits in staging such an important event here, but the WTA has committed both its year-end championships to China for the foreseeable future, presumably for economic reasons with a view to building interest.
Going into this match, 5th-seeded Martic had defeated the No 3 seed from America in 3 sets in their only previous encounter, the second round of Roland Garros 2017, but Keys was fighting for survival, having lost to Saisai Zheng in her opening rubber, and she stepped up her game.
The earlier win marked a significant stepping stone for the Croat in her comeback from a major back injury, ranked 290 at the time, her first Top 20 scalp in 5 years, and she is now seasoned competitor.
Keys, who had difficulty finding the court at times against Zheng, was way more measured in this contest, and was able to pocket the win in straight sets, 6-3 6-4, in an hour and 10 minutes to keep her hopes in Zhuhai alive for a short time.
The American delivered 82% of her first serve points to rise to the challenge, meaning that the final Orchid Group standings will be determined by the result of Martic’s rubber against Zheng on Friday.
A win for Zheng will mean the Chinese player tops the group, but if Martic bounces back to take victory the semi-finalist will be determined by sets or games.
Keys and Martic are two of the finest servers on the WTA Tour, and their rapid-fire holds in the opening set were ultimately determined by a sole break, conceded by the Croat in the 6th game with her only double fault as her first serve percentage dropped 57%.
In fact, Keys did not face a single break point in the opener and was able to keep Martic, who recently split with long-term coach Sandra Zaniewska, at bay.
The Croat was unable to get her multi-faceted game fully into play and her lobs and drop-shots drifted just outside the lines, while the 28-year-old’s groundstrokes also let her down in routine rallies.
Having sealed the first set with her 3rd ace, Keys wasted no time in imposing herself on the second.
The American blitzed clean return winners from both wings to capture an immediate break, going on to build a 3-1 lead with her powerful forehand very much on song.
Apparently cruising, Keys was dominating all her service games until a flurry of unforced errors struck in the 6th game as Martic began to target her backhand with more accuracy of shot.
Reeling off 3 games in a row, Martic used her toehold to threaten a momentum shift, constructing smooth offensive points and finishing with efficient smashes and seemingly on the verge of a dramatic comeback, but Keys remained cool-headed.
In the face of looming danger, the American came up with a brilliant forehand pass en route to nailing a tight hold to level at 4-4.
Martic then halted her own momentum with an error-strewn service game at this crucial time and Keys stepped up to serve for the match.
It still proved to be a mini-rollercoaster for Keys, as the former World No 7 reached triple match point with her backhand, so vulnerable a few games earlier, providing her with a pair of gorgeous winners.
Errant strikes from the same wing and her first double fault found her facing break point, but she fended it off in the nick of time with clutch first serves to take her 4th match point, and await the outcome of the Orchid Group match yet to be played to see if she is to reach the semi-finals here for the first time.
All this left the American confused as to what is going on: “Apparently I could finish first, second or third still, I have no idea.
“I think it’s definitely interesting. I’ve played this format and I’ve also played in Singapore once. This one is I think a bit more complex.
“I was trying to figure it out earlier and it hurt my brain, so I gave up.
“And I’ve basically just decided that I’m going to wait and see what happens tomorrow and then someone will tell me what the outcome is.
“Obviously it’s not very often that you win a match and then lose in a tournament, so it’s interesting, but I think it makes it exciting, and there’s also the chance that you can lose a match and still be able to go on to the semi-finals.
“I might go see the city [tomorrow] and do something fun.
“I mean, at this point, I can only wait and see what happens with the match tomorrow. So, yeah, I think I’m just going to go and enjoy the city and the day.”
Following the match, the WTA did clarify that Zheng needs to win only 7 games, even in a loss, to top the group and progress to the semi-finals, while Martic requires a victory conceding just 6 games or fewer to take the top spot.
This means that Keys can finish No 2 at best and effectively brings to an end her Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai campaign.
She can console herself that it ends on a positive note and can enjoy her sightseeing more.