The cover photo for this story features the player I think is the favorite to win the 2018 WTA Finals — Caroline Wozniacki — and a woman who might not even play in the event: Simona Halep.
Unless Halep’s attempt to gain another week of recuperation time leaves her body in a reasonable position to compete at full speed (or something very close to it), she won’t be able to make it through the full round-robin series of three matches in Singapore. Kiki Bertens will definitely be on hand as the first alternate. The chances of her playing at least one match are fairly reasonable.
Yet, for the moment, the eight-player field has been set after Wednesday’s results in Moscow: Wozniacki and Halep will be joined by Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova. The Svitolina and Pliskova berths in Singapore were locked up on Wednesday when Bertens lost to Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
You might be surprised to see that Svitolina made her way into Singapore, given her struggles for much of this year. However, in the midst of those struggles, she quietly made a semifinal appearance in Montreal, a quarterfinal in Cincinnati, and a round of 16 at the U.S. Open. Those are not terrible results, but the reality that Svitolina was viewed as a co-favorite or (at worst) the No. 2 choice behind Halep to win Roland Garros nevertheless paints a portrait of decline for the Ukrainian. Precisely when it seemed she was ready to claim her moment and make a major final — if not win it — she lost in the third round of Roland Garros to Mihaela Buzarnescu. After that point — not even in Montreal — she never offered the appearance of someone ready to win big tournaments again. Stephens handled her fairly easily in the Montreal semis, and that was as close as she got to an important trophy since Paris in late spring.
Svitolina nevertheless banked points at the various stages of the season: quarterfinals at the Australian Open, a successful defense of her Rome title from 2017, and then the summer hardcourt run. Those modest but decent results don’t belong to a top-tier championship contender, but they do belong to a WTA Finals participant. The players Svitolina beat out for a Singapore slot — chiefly Bertens, Anastasija Sevastova and Julia Goerges — lost too many times in the very early rounds of majors this year. Had those three players complemented their strong 2018 seasons by winning two to four more matches at the Slams, Svitolina might not be headed for Singapore… but she is, and she earned it.
Svitolina is one notable story in Singapore, given the reality that her 2018 didn’t rise to her expectations. Svitolina underachieved in 2018 yet still made the WTA Finals. That is impressive in its own way and an indicator of what she is still capable of if she adjusts to her physical changes and rediscovers a more potent way of playing.
The other story I find particularly notable among the eight WTA Finals participants: Naomi Osaka.
How could it be anyone else?
Halep, Wozniacki, Kvitova, Kerber, Stephens, and Pliskova do not represent surprising stories as WTA Finals qualifiers. The first five players on that list are major champions and have proven themselves at the highest tiers of the sport. Pliskova doesn’t have quite the same credentials but has shown that she can put together seasons loaded with quarterfinal appearances in important tournaments. That is admirable and, more to the point, a reliable path to a year-end championship event if the rest of the tour is inconsistent.
Osaka stands out from those other names. Much like Aryna Sabalenka but to a noticeably greater degree, Osaka burst into stardom on the WTA Tour this year. It was very reasonable, heading into the U.S. Open, to think that her Indian Wells championship was going to remain the signature accomplishment of her year.
This is no criticism of Osaka — it is merely a reflection of life on tour for a young player who wins a big tournament. Expectations rise. Demands on time increase and become more complicated. Most of all, the rest of the tour sharpens its focus. These and the added strain of injuries all weighed down Osaka after Indian Wells. Kerber took advantage of injury-based rust to blitz Osaka in the third round of Wimbledon, a match which looked so promising on paper but became uneventful one-way traffic for the German who then won the title a week later.
No one would have blamed Osaka for being unable to rediscover her Indian Wells formula in the latter half of this season. No one (at least, no one who was being reasonable) would have tut-tutted about her failures after Indian Wells as a revealing flaw or an alarming development. No, Indian Wells made 2018 a success for Osaka. The reality of having to back up a big result is regularly challenging for young players (see, “Ostapenko, Jelena”). Adjusting to new realities often occurs in the context of years and whole seasons, not merely six-month segments.
Osaka, then, showed so much about herself as a tennis player by not only winning the U.S. Open, but winning it so authoritatively. Her one especially tough match came against Sabalenka, the other player making a meteoric rise up the ranks on tour. How Osaka then handled the firestorm involving Serena Williams and Carlos Ramos in the U.S. Open final showed that her immense racquet skills are complemented by a level head. Osaka did a lot of growing up this year, and as a result, she was able to collect two of the sport’s most important trophies at the opposite ends of the season — one in March, the other in September.
If Svitolina showed that one can underperform relative to expectations yet still remain near the top tier of the sport — which is, again, a laudable feat in its own context — Osaka impressed this season not only because she soared, but because she soared AFTER taking several punches and being forced to deal with the interruptions and derailments which commonly visit athletes in their quest to sustain excellence.
The WTA Finals field is impressive all the way through. The next question is whether Simona Halep will be able to play the whole tournament, or whether Kiki Bertens, the author of her own resplendent season, will get at least one chance to continue that season in Singapore.
More on the WTA Finals at Tennis With An Accent once the groups and round-robin matchups are unveiled.
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