The 5th Elite Trophy Zhuhai got under way in China on Tuesday, rewarding the players who narrowly missed out on qualifying via the Porsche Race to Shenzhen for the Shiseido WTA Finals next week with their own end-of-season championships.
I don't know that the courts are fast, but it feels really comfortable Aryna Sabalenka
A total of 12 singles players and 6 doubles teams are included in the Elite Trophy field, competing for a total prize purse of over $2.4 million.
The singles players are competing in 4 round robin groups of 3, with the winners of each group advancing to the knock-out semi-finals at the weekend; while the doubles teams are split into 2 round robin groups, with the winner of each advancing to the final.
First out of the blocks in the Rose Group was the No 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka, who proved a little too hot for Maria Sakkari and won in straight sets, 6-3 6-4.
The Greek won their only previous meeting in Cincinnati earlier this year and although the sets were tight on this occasion, it was the Belarusian’s superior fire-power that held the edge.
Afterwards, Sabalenka said that she had learned some valuable lessons from that earlier defeat.
“I was crazy on the court, I was getting mad because of everything,” she recalled. “So this time I was trying to stay calm until the end and just fight for every point, because she’s a big fighter and she will go for it, it doesn’t matter what – and so I was trying to stay focused on each point.
“And of course I think my game was more consistent today.”
Also a factor was that Sakkari is just back from a two month break due to a wrist injury and playing only her second match.
Sabalenka lost her first 4 matches against Top 25 players in 2019, including a Fed Cup defeat to Ashleigh Barty, but has since gone 5-2 against the same category of rival, and took the titles in Wuhan and Shenzhen.
In short, she is on fire and struck 6 aces to open her campaign, breaking her opponent once in each set.
The serve-dominated affair featured few extended rallies as aces and service winners flowed.
During the first set, Sabalenka won 88% of her first serve points, with Sakkari only just behind on 79%, and the first 7 games passed by in a series of rapid-fire holds.
The Belarusian had to stave off 5 break points in the 3rd game, and survived 3 double faults in the 7th, while Sakkari was able to save 2 break points in the 6th, both serving their way out of trouble.
The 8th game saw Sabalenka step up to take advantage of the lesser Sakkari second serve, which garnered the 24-year-old only 27% of the points behind it across the match compared to Sabalenka’s 61%.
Racing to the net with alacrity, Sabalenka broke with a fine, deep forehand volley, and swiftly served out the set, finishing with a bold serve-and-volley that saw her final shot catch the net cord to bounce out of Sakkari’s reach.
The second set followed a similar pattern, opening with 8 consecutive holds.
Sabalenka missed chances as she squandered a break point in the 3rd and 5th games as Sakkari grew increasingly frustrated at her inability to impact her rival’s service games.
At 4-4, Sabalenka once again rose to the occasion with the 21-year-old’s forays to the forecourt proving key as she rushed the net off deep returns and forcing Sakkari into error to concede the sole break of the set.
Despite 2 more double faults as she attempted to serve out the win, taking her tally to 8 for the match, Sabalenka, the World No 14, successfully sealed victory.
Her court speed, it turned out, had even surprised Sabalenka
“I just know in the practice I didn’t feel that the courts are really fast,” she explained. “But today, especially on the baseline, it was really, really fast… I think it’s helped my game a lot.
“I don’t know that the courts are fast, but it feels really comfortable.”
Sabalenka is up and flying in the Rose Group.
Earlier in the day the Chinese wild-card pairing of Xinyu Wang & Qianthui Tang went the distance against the No 4 seeds, Oksana Kalashnikova from Georgia and America’s Sofia Kenin, winning through 6-2 4-6 [10-7] to give the home crowd plenty to cheer about.