Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova were expected by many to meet in the second match of the WTA Finals White Group… but as first-match winners, not losers. This match figured to be the Day 3 contest which would put one player into the semifinals or, at the very least, push the winner so close to the semifinals that the odds of round-robin elimination on Thursday would be close to zero.
Yet, these are the WTA Finals, and so what one would naturally anticipate often gets smashed to bits. Sure enough, Wozniacki — the defending WTA Finals champion — and Kvitova, a five-time WTA Tour champion in 2018, had to slug it out on Tuesday to have a realistic chance at survival in the White Group. The loser — while not necessarily eliminated — will have to thread the needle on Thursday, needing both a win and a favorable result in the other match played that day. “Group math” has to fall into place for a 1-2 player in three round-robin matches to somehow make the semis.
Wozniacki-Kvitova was therefore a match in which both players had to regroup. They were not blown out in their first matches, but they also didn’t win any of the key points in losses to Karolina Pliskova (Wozniacki) and Elina Svitolina (Kvitova). They both lost 12 games to 6. They didn’t put an authoritative stamp on this event.
In the first seven games of Tuesday’s match, that changed.
Both players hit the ball with clarity and aggression in a well-played first set. Most of the matches so far in Singapore (early days, but it is the sample size we have to work with) have meandered all over the place. At the start of this contest, however, Wozniacki and Kvitova belted the ball and did what they wanted to do. Both players played well at the same time — that’s when a match crackles. When Wozniacki broke for 5-3 and Kvitova broke back for 4-5, they broke with high-quality shots, as opposed to requiring errors from the other side of the net. It was only at 6-5, with Kvitova serving to stay in the set, that one player faltered. It was the Czech, whose bright start melted into the hit-and-miss volatility which is a familiar sight for anyone who watches Kvitova throughout a tennis season.
In the middle of the second set, Wozniacki requested the trainer to look at her left knee. A patch was applied by the trainer, and although Kvitova — up 3-1 — lost her rhythm immediately after the trainer visit, she quickly got it back in the seventh game of the second set. Kvitova, as long as she got back her returns late in the set, steered the rallies in ways which elicited short balls from Wozniacki, who lost the punch and spin on her groundstrokes which had pushed Kvitova back in the first set. Kvitova roared through the final three games from 3-3 to take the second at 6-3 and force a decider.
Two players who entered Tuesday needing to fight back had both shown they could do exactly that — Wozniacki’s resolute first set and Kvitova’s emphatic answer at the end of the second set led to a one-set sprint toward a needed victory and group survival.
In a sprint, guess who won? The woman who has run a marathon and brings her track shoes to the court every time she competes.
Wozniacki found a way to reset the dial in the third set. She regained the depth on her groundstrokes — at least to the point that she didn’t offer Kvitova many short balls. At the end of the first set, Wozniacki — playing on a surface (slow hardcourt) which suits her game — shrank the court and accordingly reduced the margins for Kvitova. That disappeared late in the second, but Denmark’s major champion regained her ability to put the squeeze on Kvitova in the third.
The decisive moment came with Wozniacki up a break at *2-1 but facing break point at 30-40. Kvitova had just hit two return winners to the corners. On a second serve, Kvitova went for a return down the middle third of the court and missed long.
What do tennis observers always know — and say — about great players? They punish those brief lapses by opponents.
Wozniacki hit a very difficult overhead from the back of the court on the next point and held for 3-1.
She ran with that hold and quickly built a 5-1 lead, tucking away a 6-2 set without any drama once she escaped that 2-1 service game.
Kvitova now needs all sorts of help to have any chance of making the semifinals. Wozniacki, on the other hand, knows that if she beats Elina Svitolina on Thursday, she has a good chance of being able to make it to Saturday in pursuit of a WTA Finals title defense.
Wozniacki-Kvitova was not supposed to be a battle for survival. It was supposed to create the White Group champion. This is, however, a tournament in Singapore which doesn’t follow clean, linear patterns. When forced into an urgent situation, Caroline Wozniacki found she had more than enough to meet the moment.