Already without the world No1 and French Open champion Simona Halep due to injury, the semi-finals will also be without the next four ranked women in the world, and without a 2018 Major champion. No No2 and Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, no No3 and Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, no No4 and US Open champion, Naomi Osaka, and no No5 Petra Kvitova, the most prolific champion on the tour this year.
The stresses and strains of the long months on the tour to reach the grand finale of the tennis year began to show in the concluding matches, but for the big and enthusiastic crowds who have supported the tournament all week, there had certainly been some thrilling contests, some outstanding tennis, and some long, highly competitive matches.
First Sunday set the tone, two straight-sets wins for Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina—perhaps against expectations, but an indication form that would last the course.
Then came three days packed with three setters, six of them. And Monday’s Red Group openers also threw down the gauntlet to the favourites with wins for Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens.
By their third matches in as many days, Pliskova and Svitolina finished as they had started, with wins and guaranteed places in the semi-finals. And this concluding round-robin day did the same. Osaka, who had picked up an injury earlier in the week, was forced to concede her match after one set to Bertens, who thus made the semis after only qualifying for the tournament courtesy of Halep’s withdrawal—a huge achievement in her Singapore debut.
But whether she would be top of her group or second would be determined by the very last match between Kerber and Stephens.
If Kerber won, Bertens would be the group winner and face Pliskova in the semis, Kerber would be second and play Svitolina.
If Stephens won, she would be the group winner and face Pliskova, while Bertens would face Svitolina.
Stephens, the No5 seed, 2017 US Open champion and winner of the Premier Mandatory in Miami, had a 4-1 lead over Kerber, having won the last eight sets since 2015.
Yet while that run would continue for Stephens, the 6-3, 6-3 scoreline did not do justice to the hour and three-quarters that the two women battled it out.
In the early games, it was Stephens who came under concerted pressure, fending off two break points in the second game and three more to hold for 2-2.
The American then turned the tables on the German, converting her own chance to break with a net attack and smash winner.
She then battled through another deuce game and held off yet another break point to hold—and promptly broke to love for a 5-2 lead. It was attacking, explosive tennis, just like she had played to win her Major in New York last year.
But Kerber responded in kind, stepped in, went on the offensive, and at last converted on her eighth break-point chance, 3-5. However, she could not hold off Stephens, who broke once more for the set, 6-3.
In the second set, it was again in the fourth game that this intense tussle took off, as time and again Stephens worked break point and Kerber resisted with bold and brave angles. Finally, Stephens got her chance, on her eighth break opportunity, and after almost nine minutes took a 3-1 lead.
Again, Kerber dug in, plied her spin and angle to break straight back. However, she faced trouble in the eighth game, 0-40 down. She worked back to deuce, but then netted a forehand. Stephens would serve for the match, 5-3.
The American made no mistake, either, against a weary Kerber. Stephens sealed her place in the semi-finals, with a clean sheet of wins from the round robins.
So the singles line-up is complete, the first time since the round-robin were introduced in 2003 that the lowest four seeds have all made it through. And the last time there were no top-four seeds in the semis at the WTA Finals was in 1994.
Schedule and line-up
Play starts 1.30pm Saturday
Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova vs Andrea Sestina Hlavackova/Barbora Strycova
Not before 4pm
Kiki Bertens vs Elina Svitolina
Not before 7.30pm
Sloane Stephens vs Karolina Pliskova
Ashleigh Barty/Coco Vandeweghe vs Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic
· Svitolina and Stephens both progressed through their groups with three victories. They were the 20th and 21st players to achieve that feat respectively.
· Bertens’ win over Osaka is her 12th against a top-10 player in 2018, a tour-leading figure. Before this year, she only had three in her career.
· Pliskova is the WTA match-win leader this season, with 49 victories. She is bidding to hit the 50-win mark for the third time in her career.
· Two debutantes, Bertens and Stephens, have reached the semis in the same year for the first time since 2007 (Ana Ivanovic and Anna Chakvetadze).
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge