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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.

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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