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Sabalenka Grows — And Continues The WTA’s Magical Year

Matt Zemek

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Tennis24.com via Twitter

It is no grand secret, no hidden mystery, no elaborate and unnoticed narrative: Men’s tennis — if not now, certainly in the middle of the next decade, when each of the Big 3 are either retired or in their very late 30s — is on the verge of a dramatic comedown.

When Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have all finished the race, ATP tennis could return to that time in the early 2000s when Arnaud Clement or Rainer Schuettler made major finals. No disrespect is intended to those players, but one can simply say that the gulf in quality between the major finalists of the pre-Big 3 era — particularly that pocket of time from 1997 through 2002 — and the past 15 years is enormous.

My Tennis With An Accent colleague Andrew Burton is fond of saying that at every tournament, “Someone has to win the title.” Someone has to win every match. Someone has to win every trophy. Champions are always crowned at every tour stop, every week, on the tennis tours. This doesn’t mean the tennis is memorable, even though the champions at every event will rightly remember and cherish what they achieved. Every tennis player deserves to celebrate his or her moments in the sun, regardless of how great the tennis was along the way. We, those of us who write about tennis, never wish to dampen that sense of enjoyment. We don’t tell athletes that they shouldn’t feel good about the championships they win. I regularly say that style points don’t matter in a bottom-line sport such as tennis. I regularly note that what I think about the stylistic elements of a match is something athletes shouldn’t care one whit about.

But make no mistake: Past eras of men’s tennis — and the eventual end of the Big 3 era — suggest that the mid-2020s will mark a rough time for the ATP.

The WTA could not be in a more different position leaving Wuhan and entering Beijing. Women’s tennis, late in this 2018 season with 2019 about to emerge just over the horizon, is poised for a prolonged period of prosperity and riches.

The Wuhan Open and its newly-crowned Premier 5 champion showed why.

This tournament was the epitome of chaos.

None of the top 15 seeds made the quarterfinals. Not one.

Lots of players either had a hard time finding clarity and intensity, just two weeks after the U.S. Open, or were physically spent (or a combination of the two). One of the semifinals was cut short by a retirement from Wang Qiang. The proximity of this event to the end of the U.S. Open — which was brutally taxing for so many players because of the weather — didn’t lend itself to great tennis. Another week of rest between these events (three weeks separate Canada from Wimbledon, for instance, providing more of a buffer between a major tournament and the next big event on the calendar) was recommended. WTA players did the best they could under these imperfect circumstances, but the two-week break simply wasn’t sufficient.

The Wuhan Open must have been a dud, right?

Wrong.

If you were to identify the one unseeded player, the one face in the crowd, the one presence who could win this tournament and make everyone in tennis forget the limitations of the 2018 Wuhan Open, it could have been only one choice: It HAD to be Aryna Sabalenka.

It WAS Aryna Sabalenka. Of course!

There are two fundamental points to underscore about Sabalenka’s Wuhan championship, secured with a victory over Anett Kontaveit in Saturday’s final:

1 – Sabalenka defeated the only seeded player to make the semifinals, Ashleigh Barty, before reaching and winning the final against Kontaveit. This is notable because Barty made the 2017 Wuhan Open final before losing to Caroline Garcia. Barty made a late-season push last year and has done so again this year. Barty has shown occasional glimpses of rising to a higher level on the WTA ranks, but nothing sustained for a conspicuously long period of time. Her Montreal semifinal was highly encouraging — I wrote about it here — but if we are waiting for Barty to reach the top tier of the WTA Tour, we can safely say that hasn’t happened yet. It doesn’t mean Barty is behind schedule — no, I wouldn’t say that — but merely that her ascendance has been modest.

This leads into point two:

2 – Sabalenka is authoring a meteoric rise, highlighted by this Wuhan championship. This point might be obvious to the extent that it requires no explanation, but it demands at least a few notes.

We know about the high workload in Canada, Cincinnati, New Haven, and then in New York at the U.S. Open. The fact that Sabalenka took a few weeks to recharge and then had more than enough in the tank for Wuhan is notable.

It is more than that, however: Mentally, players often have a tough time resetting the dial in Asia after the U.S. Open. Continuing to attack the WTA Tour, continuing to attack tennis balls and specific opponents, is not easy to do every month of the season, and the autumn swing particularly tests players’ abilities to play with maximum hunger after the fourth major of the year ends. Sloane Stephens has a hard time during this point on the calendar. So do several other WTA notables.

Sabalenka made this process look relatively uncomplicated.

She won three-setters in her first two matches but then won her last four matches in Wuhan in straight sets, requiring 12 games (7-5) in only one set and needing only one tiebreaker victory as well. She mowed down the field, rightly making observers focus on the caliber of her dominance rather than on the hollowed-out bracket after the round of 16.

One final point must be emphasized for the record: Wuhan and other late-season tournaments — as shown by Caroline Garcia last year — are often won by players who have not loaded up on tennis, in many cases because they didn’t go too deep into too many tournaments from January through the U.S. Open. “Fuel-tank tennis” is a common dynamic in late-September or anytime-in-October tournaments, which makes the autumn swing a time when second-tier players sometimes pick up first-tier trophies and make rankings-point gains they fail to consolidate (as Garcia has failed to do) the following season.

With Sabalenka, that dynamic does not apply.

Yes, she didn’t go deep into tournaments in the spring, but her workload in the summer — combined with a TOUR-LEADING 19 three-set match wins this year (in nearly 30 three-set matches played) — marks Sabalenka as a player who was not operating on a full fuel tank entering China. While it is certainly true that Sabalenka has not had to shoulder the burden of a full January-to-September slog (which will represent the fundamental challenge of her 2019 season), she did not win Wuhan because she was more rested than anyone else. No way. That notion simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

No, this was a player who played more tennis than anyone else on the WTA Tour in August (more than Simona Halep winning Montreal and then making the Cincinnati final), did well at the U.S. Open, and then came to China and simply picked up where she left off.

She rightly left people in awe of her burgeoning career, her emerging credentials, and a noticeably well-rounded game married with the inner steel needed to make it great.

The WTA witnessed an event in Wuhan which, on many levels, would suggest the notion that a champion took advantage of unique circumstances. It is something which happens all the time in this sport. Yet, the reality that so many top players were not in position to play their best in Wuhan can’t really be used as the final word on this tournament — not when a player who played a truckload of tennis in recent weeks is the one who lifted the trophy.

A lot of tired tennis was played in Wuhan, but the WTA player who had every reason to play highly fatigued tennis — arguably more than anyone other than Naomi Osaka (who pulled out of the tournament before it began for her) — is the one who stormed through the field, particularly the final four rounds. Aryna Sabalenka rightly made everyone forget about the bracket carnage at the Wuhan Open. Her quality is too luminous to ignore right now.

Even when the WTA had an event which didn’t crackle as a complete entity, it still wound up with a champion whose excellence appropriately became the top story. That is how the WTA has been riding in 2018. Every champion does something so special that the mass exoduses of high seeds in early rounds do not matter.

Speaking of Osaka before we finish here: The month of September gave us Osaka-Sabalenka at the U.S. Open. When you realize how much tennis Sabalenka had played going into that match, it was impossible to repress or ignore the thought that if Sabalenka had not loaded up on matches entering that contest, the outcome might have been different.

In the weeks since that match, Osaka and Sabalenka have both won titles. Sabalenka took a brief amount of time away from tennis and promptly bagged a Premier 5 title. What is left to conclude other than this: Sabalenka continues to reinforce every sense that she is the real deal… much like Osaka.

This Wuhan Open and this month of September in 2018 do not guarantee superstardom for Sabalenka and Osaka — few things are guaranteed in sports, as in life — but everything we are seeing certainly points to the idea that these two young stars are going to continue to rise before our eyes in the next 10 years.

Sabalenka, the new Wuhan champion, has made the latest statement in support of that claim.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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WTA Tour

Stephens and Bertens Have Reason To Smile At The WTA Finals

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Whereas the WTA Finals White Group offered a clear favorite — Caroline Wozniacki — and a likely second choice, Petra Kvitova, the Red Group was more complicated.

This half of the WTA’s year-end championship tournament in Singapore placed four players on relatively equal — and uncertain — footing.

There was a strong case to make FOR and AGAINST each player advancing to the semifinals and enjoying a productive week in Singapore.

Angelique Kerber, with her defensive skills and a past appearance in the championship match of the WTA Finals (two years ago against Dominika Cibulkova), was a natural fit for the slower playing surface in Singapore. On the other hand, her coaching situation is now uncertain after the split with Wim Fissette, documented here at Tennis With An Accent. She had also not done much since her Wimbledon title.

Kiki Bertens has been playing high-quality tennis for most of the past few months. On the other hand, she was new to this event and wasn’t sure until late last week — when Simona Halep pulled out — that she would qualify for the final eight. She would have been the first alternate had Halep played in Singapore. That is not an easy position for any athlete — these professionals crave certainty and the ability to plan ahead.

Naomi Osaka has been — alongside Aryna Sabalenka — one of the two best players on the WTA Tour since late August. On the other hand, she was also new to the WTA Finals and did not feel 100-percent healthy late in Beijing, where physical discomfort seemed to affect her in a loss to Anastasija Sevastova.

Sloane Stephens — like Kerber — plays great defense and therefore figured to enjoy the slower courts in Singapore. She, like Kerber, had also not overplayed in September, leaving her fresh for this tournament, whereas Bertens and Osaka had played a lot more tennis over the past two months. On the other hand, Stephens rarely plays well in Asia and had been coming off another typically mediocre Asian swing. This was also her first WTA Finals appearance as a top-eight qualifier. She was second alternate in 2013.

Bottom line: You could look at this group and all four players and easily see any of them winning, or any of them losing. Bertens and Osaka were the in-form players, but they were newcomers to this event. Kerber and Stephens had the playing styles to match the slower court speed, but were not in top form.

Bertens and Osaka had logged a lot of miles in recent weeks, while Kerber and Stephens were looking for a spark. Kerber carried the extra baggage of her coaching situation… but Elina Svitolina is also in an in-between place relative to her coaching arrangement, and that didn’t seem to bother her in a convincing win over Petra Kvitova a day earlier in Singapore.

So, who had a clue how the Red Group would unfold?

The first day of Red Group play in Singapore — Day 2 of the WTA Finals — was a natural extension and product of the uncertainties this group brought to the court.

In both matches on Monday, the outcome was totally up for grabs early in the third set, with no clear linear flow of play. In both matches — much like Day 1 in the White Group — the Red Group’s foursome immersed itself in complicated service games, veering between sublime and mediocre play. These matches weren’t classics, but neither were they ugly slogs. They defied easy analysis. They involved late-set plot twists (more than the White Group openers) and a lot fewer consolidated service breaks. What was gained in one moment was lost minutes later.

Through all the chaos and the variations in quality, two entertaining and well-fought matches naturally split the difference between the in-form players and the struggling players.

In the first Red Group match on Monday night, Stephens halted Osaka in three sets. In the second match, Bertens’ terrific second-half surge in 2018 continued with a comeback win over the still-sluggish Kerber.

These matches felt like 50-50 prospects coming in, which is why Monday’s wins have to be especially satisfying for the winners, both newcomers to the WTA Finals.

Whereas Stephens generally expects to play well at the U.S. Open and Kerber has her happy place at Wimbledon, this environment doesn’t hold the same weight of expectation. Bertens and Osaka — both riding the wave at the high points of their respective careers — could not say, entering Singapore, that they knew what to expect. They didn’t.

No one did.

Monday’s matches reflected as much, with Osaka getting broken three times by Stephens in the first set, then finding her backhand in the second set — especially to the deuce corner — only to then lose the plot in the third in the face of Stephens’ renewed consistency and impeccably good defense.

The nightcap was even wilder, with Kerber storming through the first set, only to lose focus at key points late in the second. The third set was one of the most unusual sets of tennis played anywhere in 2018, with seven straight breaks of serve to start the set, followed by a hold for Bertens in Game 8 from love-40 down.

Bertens served out the match moments later to create a drama similar to the one in the White Group: The two major champions of 2018 which are located in the Red Group, Osaka and Kerber, will play in Match 2 for WTA Finals survival. This is akin to the White Group second match between Wozniacki (another 2018 major champion) and Kvitova, a five-time tour winner this year who figured to play Wozniacki in the winner’s match, not the loser’s match, on Tuesday.

The results of the first two days remain entirely fitting for the WTA Finals, an event drenched in unpredictability over the past several years: As soon as Simona Halep — the most consistent player on tour this year — pulled out, these Finals were left with a lot of inconsistent players, Kerber being the least inconsistent of the larger bunch but still carrying questions to Singapore.

Two days, four matches, four results — they have all underscored the reality of WTA inconsistency. They have produced interesting, layered tennis, but consistency is the last word one would apply to the theater of competition thus far. The three 2018 major champions in this field of eight will all play for survival, not to clinch a semifinal spot, in their second matches over the next 48 hours.

Everything feels uncertain this week in Singapore, which is exactly why these first-match wins for Stephens and Bertens should offer both players considerable cause for elation.

Sloane and Kiki know, however, that as their matches showed on Monday, nothing at the WTA Finals remains in place very long.

Let’s see what the second matches do — in both groups — to shake up this tournament even more.

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WTA Finals — Things Are Looking Up For Svitolina and Pliskova On Day 1

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Petra Kvitova won five titles in 2018 and generally feels very comfortable indoors, where her clean ballstriking isn’t subjected to wind and her body isn’t subjected to the extreme summer heat which has often gotten in her way in the past.

Caroline Wozniacki had just won the Beijing Premier Mandatory championship and had all the momentum she could have wanted entering Singapore.

If you polled any 10 tennis fans or commentators about the White Group at the WTA Finals, it is hard to imagine anyone not picking Wozniacki to advance from the round-robin stages into the semifinals. You might have received some split verdicts on Kvitova, with Karolina Pliskova possibly receiving some votes as a semifinal participant.

The one player who didn’t figure to rise at this tournament from the White Group? Elina Svitolina.

You know, the player who just ditched her coaching team.

The player whose body has gone through a lot of changes this year.

The player who still put together solid results this season — obviously enough to make the WTA Finals again — but never looked like a championship contender since Roland Garros.

Yeah, THAT player.

Year-end championship tournaments — for both the WTA and the ATP — generally involve at least one player who enters the event ready for the season to be over. This is not a negative commentary on the athlete as a competitor; it is merely a reflection of the complicated and often overwhelming circumstances which surround competition. At least one athlete is either going through too much upheaval, or has played too much tennis, or has struggled to find the sweet spot in terms of rhythm or tactics or poise, or all of the above.

If you were to ask anyone who has followed the WTA in 2018 about the White Group player most likely to be eliminated in the round-robin segment of the WTA Finals, only one choice made the most sense: Svitolina.

Guess what? She cleanly defeated Petra Kvitova to kick off the festivities in Asia.

On a first day of the WTA Finals in which both matches took on similar dimensions, Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova both scored what would generally be viewed as upsets. They stopped Kvitova and Wozniacki to immediately upend the White Group balance of power. They didn’t even need three sets to do so — both won in straights, and both by a margin of 12 games to 6. Svitolina won 3 and 3, while Pliskova won 2 and 4.

When one remembers that sets won and lost, plus games won and lost, decide tiebreakers if the round-robin standings become messy, the decisive nature of Svitolina’s and Pliskova’s victories give them added leverage heading into their second matches.

The flip side of that reality: Wozniacki and Kvitova — the two favorites to advance to the semis in most eyes once the two groups were revealed in Singapore — won’t meet to decide the group champion. They will instead meet for survival. The loser will not be able to do any better than 1-2 in the three-match round-robin portion of the tournament. That might be enough to advance, but with the bad math created by Day 1’s results, that is not something to count on.

The common thread uniting these two matches — other than their identity as upsets — is that in both cases, one player won a majority of crunch-time points.

Consider this from Svitolina’s victory, adding that deuce points weren’t counted as part of this tweet:

Then turn to the nightcap on Sunday in Singapore and note that Wozniacki went 0 for 10 in break-point chances against Pliskova, including two not converted when Pliskova was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set.

Especially in the case of Wozniacki against Pliskova, you are not going to see too many matches in which a returner of Woz’s caliber is denied that many times on break points without a single conversion. “One of those days” and “small sample size” do apply. There is no need to fight the notion that these results had a degree of randomness to them.

Nevertheless, it remains that at the WTA Finals, Day 1 in 2018 continued the theme discussed here in our Tennis With An Accent scene-setter for the tournament.

The 2017 tournament provided a 2-and-2 win for Pliskova in her first match of the week in Singapore. That win came against Garbine Muguruza. That was as unexpected as this win was against Wozniacki. Svitolina over Kvitova isn’t as surprising if only because Kvitova hasn’t done as much on tour compared to Wozniacki in recent months. Nevertheless, Svitolina’s diminished game and uncertain coaching situation hardly supported the idea that she was ready for a breakthrough in Singapore.

The WTA Finals remain unpredictable. Day 1 set a tone in the White Group. We will soon see if the Red Group cuts in a similar direction.

One person’s advice: Don’t think for a second you know which way this event is going to go. The player most people expected to thrive at this tournament, Wozniacki, will play Kvitova on Tuesday not to ascend to the top of the group, but to merely stay in contention for the semifinals.

Yup — that sounds about right, given how the WTA Finals have unfolded in recent years.

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2018 WTA Finals Reminder — Seeds Don’t Show Where The Road Leads

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

If you followed the WTA Tour to a reasonable degree in 2018, you know that the tour is deep, balanced, unpredictable, and filled with players who have been brilliant in short bursts but haven’t dominated the tour for three- or four-month segments, let alone the whole year. The most consistent WTA player of 2018 is a player who won’t compete in the upcoming WTA Finals: Simona Halep. The only player who stands particularly close to Halep in terms of consistency is Angelique Kerber, who joined Halep in the Australian Open semifinals and made a number of quarterfinals at important tournaments in the first half of 2018 before winning Wimbledon in July.

Kerber knows as well as everyone else in Singapore that when these WTA Finals begin, seeds mean nothing except for the fact that they separate the halves of the draw (1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 and 8 being split into separate halves). Carry that point of awareness into this tournament… and remember that recent WTA Finals have also served as a warning to anyone who feels secure in predicting this event in Asia.

The last WTA Finals with a “normal” championship match was 2014. Serena Williams entered as the top seed and favorite. She left as the champion after defeating Halep in the final. Yet, even in that year, the No. 8 seed — the player who participated in the tournament as the eighth-place finisher in the WTA Race To Singapore and was not injured or otherwise displaced by the first alternate — made the semifinals. That was Caroline Wozniacki back then.

In two of the next three years since that 2014 year-end championship for the WTA, No. 8 seeds have returned to the semifinals: Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2016 and Caroline Garcia last year. Being the eighth member of the field in Singapore has hardly meant an early dismissal in the round-robin stages.

Try this fact on for size as well: In each of the last three WTA Finals (following Serena’s triumph in 2014), the winner has come from the bottom four seeds: Agnieszka Radwanska in 2015 (No. 5), Dominika Cibulkova in 2016 (No. 7), and Wozniacki last year (No. 6). Last year, none of the top four seeds even made the final. Only one — Karolina Pliskova, who is back in this year’s edition — managed to get as far as the semifinals, and most observers probably felt that Pliskova was herself a surprise semifinalist despite a No. 3 seeding.

I would be willing to guess that if I asked a bunch of tennis pundits whether Pliskova or Garbine Muguruza would make the semis last year in Singapore (once the WTA Finals groups were announced), most would have predicted Muguruza. Remember, Garbine had won Cincinnati and lost at the U.S. Open only because Petra Kvitova (who is a 2018 WTA Finals participant) played a spectacular match to beat her in the fourth round. Pliskova was convincingly beaten by CoCo Vandeweghe in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

I won’t say “no one saw it coming,” but few people expected Pliskova to dismantle Muguruza by a 6-2, 6-2 scoreline to start round-robin play in 2017. That result sent the Spaniard on a downward course, ultimately out of Singapore before the semis arrived.

The WTA Finals — over the past three iterations — achieved what the 2018 WTA season has similarly done: Both this tournament and the 2018 WTA Tour have wiped out the significance of high seeds.

Kerber won Wimbledon as a No. 11 seed. Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open as a No. 20 seed. Sloane Stephens reached the Roland Garros final as a No. 10 seed. Only the Australian Open — with No. 1 Halep against No. 2 Wozniacki — went according to form, and both players had to save multiple match points to get to the final. Wozniacki could have been out in round two, Halep out in round three, but they survived and changed their stories in 2018 with remarkable fightback efforts.

This is all prelude to the revelation of the two groups for the 2018 WTA Finals.

One group — the Red Group — will have Kerber, Osaka, Stephens, and Kiki Bertens, the beneficiary of Halep’s pullout this past week due to her injury.

The other group — the White Group — will have Wozniacki, Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, and Pliskova.

On paper, one would think that the White Group will elevate Wozniacki and Kvitova (the higher two seeds in that foursome) to the semifinals. Svitolina has noticeably struggled this season and either lacks a solid plan or needs time (in the coming offseason) to implement it. Pliskova is a solid quarterfinal-level tour player, exactly what a player who finishes just inside the top 8 figures to achieve, but she has not improved her game in 2018. Kvitova, playing indoors where she is comfortable, figures to Czech-mate her countrywoman when they play.

That is on paper, however. WTA Finals tournaments have shredded a lot of paper in recent years.

The Red Group isn’t predictable on paper, so there is no need to overturn any conventional wisdom… because there IS no conventional wisdom to start with.

Kerber could be refreshed by a not-too-taxing autumn swing. She has not overloaded herself with matches, unlike Osaka, who has shown good form but carried a lot more on her plate in recent months. Stephens — as usual — did not do well in the tournaments following the U.S. Open, but she is well-known as a player who plays poorly at a few events and then soars at the next. If she does well in Singapore, no one should be surprised. Finally, Bertens might be the No. 8 player in the field relative to the 2018 WTA Race to Singapore, but the second half of the season has been filled with victories and career breakthroughs. She is a dangerous player, akin to Garcia as the No. 8 seed last year.

The WTA Finals are about to begin. Seeds offer no real indication of where the road leads at the year-end championship of women’s tennis.

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