Zuhai | Rybarikova topples top seeded Mladenovic
Magdelena Rybarikova, who went down to German Julia Goerges in straight sets at the Hengqing Life WTA Elite Trophy on Tuesday, got over her initial losing slump by outlasting the top seed, Kristina ‘KiKi’ Mladenovic on Wednesday, 7-5 6-1 7-6(5).
The Slovakian needed 7 match points to claim her first win in the Azalea Group and with it, she improved her group record to 1-1.
Meanwhile, Mladenovic stands at 0-1, and will have to beat Goerges later in the week to have any chance to advance.
The WTA Elite Trophy is a round-robin tournament for the top players who failed to qualify for the WTA Finals.
The tournament splits 12 players in four groups of three, with the group winners reaching the semi-finals.
Rybarikova came into the event in solid form, reaching her first final of the year in her most recent event, the Upper Austria Ladies Linz.
Mladenovic, however, is mired in an 11-match losing streak, dating back to the CitiOpen in Washington, DC in August.
I am happy that I went through this match because conditions were tough and I had some problems with my leg. I had a tough match yesterday and I had to play against someone who was resting so it was not easy for me,. I was saying to myself that I had to win this match because I had so many match points and it would be really cruel to end the season like this. Magdelena Rybarikova
Nevertheless, the Frenchwoman cracked the Top 10 for the first time in her career last month, via a superb start to 2017 when she won the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy and reached the final of the Mutua Madrid Open.
In the opening match in the City of Flowers, China’s Zhuhai, Rybarikova capitalised on Mladenovic’s rusty form to bag the first set 7-5.
Both players moved into the forecourt as much as they could, putting away volleys, or seeing passing shots go by them.
In spite of her recent form, Mladenovic was aggressive and inventive, continually attempting to use her powerful all-court game to gain an edge but, after an early exchange of breaks, it was Rybarikova who gained the crucial lead late in the opener.
At 5-5 and deuce, Rybarikova charged the net, forcing an attempted backhand pass from Mladenovic which went into the net.
The Slovakian broke for 6-5 on the next point when Mladenovic sent a backhand long.
Rybarikova clinched the tight first set in the next game, as the Frenchwoman finished the opening frame with 15 unforced errors, including 4 double faults, but any thoughts that this would be a straight-set encounter were quickly dispelled, as the Slovakian began to struggle with her back and hip.
The Frenchwoman broke for a 2-0 lead in the second but was pegged back by some attacking tennis.
The 29-year-old, ranked World No 22 and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon this season, struggled with her injury during the entire second set, and after ceding a 4-1 lead, took a medical timeout.
After the 7 minute timeout she returned to the court with the top of her left thigh taped and quickly found herself facing two more break points.
Mladenovic, unperturbed by the break, raced to a 6-1 set, in which she hit 13 winners to only 5 unforced errors.
In the sit-down, Rybarikova received further treatment for the hip injury and for a while looked hampered by the injury but, as the final set progressed, she regained her mobility to offer stiff opposition to Kiki’s barrage.
Her continued resistance frustrated the top seed, who eventually succumbed in the tiebreak, 7-5, after 2 hours and 48 minutes.
They traded breaks for 2-2, when Rybarikova seemed to clinch the decisive lead of the match, grabbing a 4-2 lead after Mladenovic pushed a forehand unforced error into the net.
It was the first of 4 consecutive breaks of service, as both players were struggling with their serves while excelling on return.
Rybarikova had a chance to quell that pattern with a match point on her serve at 5-3, but the World No 10 saved it with a smash, and she was back on serve two points later after a forehand crosscourt winner.
The top seed staved off two more match points in the next game to level the set at 5-5, and had to save a fourth match point serving at 6-5, which she did with huge forehands setting up a penetrating forehand volley.
The Slovakian could only shake her head at Mladenovic’s strong play on the match points, which sent them to a deciding tiebreak.
Too many unforced errors by Mladenovic off both wings let Rybarikova take a 5-2 lead in the breaker, and after the Slovakian’s next two service points, she led 6-3 with three more match points.
The Frenchwoman again stepped up her game, winning both match points on her serve thanks to her net-rushing power game, but, on her seventh match point, Rybarikova held firm to seal victory when Mladenovic hit a forehand into the net, keeping the Slovakian’s hopes alive to finish the 2017 season with a title in Zhuhai.
“I am happy that I went through this match because conditions were tough and I had some problems with my leg,” Rybarikova said after the match.
“I had a tough match yesterday and I had to play against someone who was resting so it was not easy for me,.
“I was saying to myself that I had to win this match because I had so many match points and it would be really cruel to end the season like this.”
Mladenovic told journalists afterwards: “[There were] ups and downs from my side, but… there’s a lot of things to take out from this match, lots of positives,” adding that Rybarikova was a great player.
“[It was] a pretty unique season,” she said when asked about her performance. “The second part is dramatic, is terrible. The first part is also dramatic but in a positive way.”
Despite ‘the tricky journey’, the French No 2 said she had improved a lot and, because of the round robin format, still has a chance to qualify for the semi-finals.
Barty beats Pavlyuchenkova
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty moved smoothly to the top of the Rose Group at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Wednesday, courtesy of a 6-4 6-1 win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
In her previous two matches against Pavlyuchenkova, Barty won a combined 6 games in total, but in the pair’s first match in four years, the Aussie broke the Russian’s serve 4 times, served 9 aces and saved 6 of the 7 break points she faced.
Going in to the match, Pavlyuchenkova, who won her first outing against former World No 1 Angelique Kerber, admitted she had hit a wall at the end of the season, but that a competitive streak would help fuel to take on Barty, the new Australian No 1 on day two of the round-robin tournament.
In fact, it had only been 18 hours since the Russia pulled off her three-set victory on Tuesday night and she had to face a fresh Barty, over who she held a 2-0 head-to-head record although they had not met since 2013.
“I felt kind of fresh when I got here, but today [Tuesday] before the first serve I thought, ‘my gosh I’m so happy it’s the last tournament’ [of the season],” Pavlyuchenkova said.
“Some [players] are just happy to be here, but for me I said I wanted to win as many matches as I could, because once I’m on the court I want to win all the time.”
The Russian was not too fussed with the short turnaround, though, saying it could even play in her favour given the court’s slow pace was hard to adjust to.
“But Ashleigh is a completely different player [to Kerber], which makes it more difficult,” the 26-year-old said.
Barty jumped ahead to 3-0 in both sets, seeing her early lead through to the end on each occasion.
The Queenslander took full advantage to dominate proceedings, her only blemish coming while serving at 5-3 in the first set, but she brushed aside that break of serve to win 7 of the 8 next games against the World No 14.
She served her way well through early tests, saving 2 break points in the first game and 4 in the third of the second set to stay ahead, and added an insure break in the sixth game to score the win in 1 hour, 12 minutes.
It was Barty’s eighth victory against a top-20 opponent this year, a record that has helped her jump 251 places up the rankings since she played the Brisbane International in January.
“Tonight, I was able to execute pretty well right from the get-go,” Barty, the youngest player in the draw at 21, told reporters.
“I like these conditions here. I have had a pretty good record here in Asia so far this year. I feel like I played pretty well tonight.
“I felt like I was able to hit my spots well, especially when I needed it in big points. I think that 2-Love game in the second was a big one to squeak out of.
“I felt confident going after my first serve and then still back on my second serve to win more points than not.”
“To qualify for this week is just a massive bonus,” Barty added.
“And now to get a win, I can just look forward to the match tomorrow and try and go out there and play with freedom again.”
Currently ranked 20 in the world, Barty could sneak into the top 16 and earn close to $900,000 if she is undefeated in winning the season-ending title.
With this win, the 9th seed will qualified outright for the semi-finals if she can beat Kerber on Thursday to move to 2-0 in the Rose group play.
Barty and Kerber will face off for the second time in 2017, as Kerber earned a three-set victory over the wild-carded Aussie at the Brisbane International in January.
“I think I’m in a bit of a different position than I was in January when we played against each other,” Barty said.
“Now, I can just look forward to the match tomorrow and try and go out there and play with freedom again and try and put on my best tennis, and whatever happens, happens.”
Sevastova sees off Stephens
Playing in the Camellia group are US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Anastasija Sevastova and Barbora Strycova,
Stephens was shocked by the prize money of $3.7 million and, now in Zhuhai, she is playing the WTA Elite Trophy, focused only on her tennis.
“I don’t know the prize money,” Stephens said.
“It’s funny you said that because Peng Shuai, who was the first person I practiced with in Wuhan said, ‘You know, you’re so famous in China?” I was like, Why? She was like, ‘Because you won so much money!’ “
When asked if she was aware what was the prize money awarded in Zhuhai, Stephens said: “No, I don’t know what the prize money is here, how much you get if you win.
“Maybe like half-a-million or something. I mean, that keeps the lights on, so I won’t be complaining. That’s a lot of money. Like I said, it keeps the lights on.”
Stephens was also asked about the difference in the ATP and WTA format where in the former, a player who wins the Major qualifies for the World Tour Finals unlike in the WTA.
“Rules are rules for a reason, I guess,” she responded. “Obviously I would have loved to make [the WTA Finals in] Singapore.
“When I started playing this year at Wimbledon, obviously I didn’t think that would even be an option.
“I think for me just to be able to play here is an honour. I mean, what I did to qualify to get here is amazing, but obviously I would have loved to play in Singapore. I’m here in instead. I think it was just meant to be.
“I just want to compete well because obviously every match is really important. I just hope to play well and get in a few matches out there.”
The American, however, could find no answers against Sevastova, who retired in 2013 due to recurring injuries and returned to competition in 2015 and, last year, had a run to quarter-finals at the 2016 US Open with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza and Johanna Konta.
Her best win of this season was against then-World No 3 Karolina Pliskova, whom she beat 6-3 6-3 in Madrid.
The 5th-seeded Latvian comprehensively dispatched Stephens in straight sets, 7-5 6-3, to head the Camellia group and now sits with a 1-0 record, after avenging her US Open quarter-final loss at the hands of the American.
“It was also a tough match today,” Sevastova told the media.
“I was fighting until the end. I think I closed the match pretty well. For sure, the most important thing was the first set, it was up and down.”
Sevastova ended the match with 23 winners, including 3 aces, and won over 71 percent of the points on her first serve.
Stephens was not nearly as effective on her first serve, losing slightly more than half of those points, and also suffered 28 unforced errors, outpacing her 19 winners.
This is the American’s third consecutive loss, and, in fact, she has not won a set since her run in New York ended in triumph two months ago.
She must now beat the other Camellia Group combatant, Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, if she is to have any hope to claim another title this year.
“Right off the bat, having to play [Sevastova] is really tough,” Stephens told the press after the match.
“Her game is super tricky. I mean, you have to kind of be ready for everything. But I don’t think I played terribly. It’s just, you know, not someone you want to play in the first round of any tournament.”
Both players exhibited exceptional returning skills in the first set, and 7 of the 12 games went against serve.
Sevastova started ahead, breaking Stephens in her first two service games.
The US Open champion was flustered and could not find her range on her groundstrokes, which were rock solid over the summer.
The Latvian’s forehand broke down a little in the middle of the set, and the players found themselves deadlocked at 5-5.
Sevastova, however, found a way to claim another service break for 6-5, running down everything Stephens threw at her on break point, and then watching as Stephens wildly missed a backhand in dismay before she calmly served out the first set.
She carried this momentum into the second set, breaking a frustrated Stephens in the first game and holding for 2-0 to prolong her winning streak to four consecutive games, clinching that hold with a cheeky backhand drop shot.
“I kind of got in the groove and relaxed a little bit,” Sevastova admitted afterwards.
Stephens eventually started to find the range on her world-class backhand, and successfully used it to give herself two chances to break back at 3-2, but Sevastova saved both.
Sevastova held at love for 5-3, forcing Stephens to serve to stay in the match and the American quickly fell behind 0-30, before the Latvian brought up triple match point with a scorching backhand winner down the line.
She converted when Stephens slammed a final backhand into the net, victory going to the Latvian.
“I think it’s good that I’m playing tomorrow again [against Strycova],” Sevastova said.
“I’m kind of in the match rhythm, but again, it’s a new day, a new match, and she’s a different player.”
The lucrative round-robin tournament features the next-best 12 players who did not qualify for the eight-player WTA Finals in Singapore last week.
A group stage victory fetches nearly $100,000, while the champion can rake in nearly $900,000 with an undefeated run to the title.