None of the top four players in the draw even made it the semi-finals of the biggest WTA event of the year, the jewel in crown, the BNP Paribas WTA Finals. And none of this year’s Major champions made it either.
For the stresses and strains of the tennis year had begun to show throughout both round robin groups.
Petra Kvitova, winner of five titles and 47 matches this year, looked weary almost from the start, while Naomi Osaka, champion in Indian Wells and the US Open, finalist in Tokyo, picked up an injury that forced her to withdraw. Neither woman won a match in Singapore.
Caroline Wozniacki, renowned for her fitness, revealed she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two months back. Little wonder the defending champion fell at the round-robin stage. Karolina Pliskova had piled on the matches since the US Open, winning Tokyo, and making the final in Tianjin. That work-rate began to tell in the semi-finals.
It so happens that the two who came through this final taxing week were the two who had played rather less coming into Singapore. Entering the WTA Finals, they had posted the fewest match-wins among the elite eight—though that had nothing to do with their quality.
World No7 Elina Svitolina owned more titles over the last two seasons—eight—than any other player. She started 2018 with a bang, winning three titles in Brisbane, Dubai and Rome, but would go on to make three first-round exits and reach just one more semi-final—in Montreal—until this week.
No6 Sloane Stephens reached four finals in one season for the first time in 2018. She won her first title since her breakout victory at the US Open last year in Miami, and was outstanding again at Roland Garros with a final run. Yet she lost in the first round at Wimbledon and at three more events since. Indeed she had won just two matches since the US Open.
However, from the very first in Singapore, both showed they were in great mental and physical shape. They won their openers, and went on to top their respective groups unbeaten, and so arrived at the title match with 4-0 records each.
Each brought superb movement and footspeed to the court, Stephens with a fluid all-court power—and she was more than happy to pick off balls at the net—and Svitolina with a nimble, explosive lightness that made her so hard to pass.
Both had played two tough three-setters in the round-robins, and both had battled through three-setters in their semis. Now, playing one another for just the fourth time, something had to give.
What did not give were the intensity and work-rate. Svitolina looked the more nervous—this was by far the biggest final of her career. Stephens, for her part, was clearly determined to come out firing after being caught on the back foot against Pliskova in the semis. She held and broke to love, but then felt the skill of her opponent in a long third game.
Stephens came to the net to put away a break point, and faced another after a 26-shot rally was sealed by a down-the-line winner from Svitolina. Again Stephens used the forehand and volley put-away to finish for 3-0.
At last, with the nerves worked out of her system, Svitolina got on the board, but had to save a break point to keep it at 2-4.
Come the seventh game, Stephens’ effortless power staved off two break points with smooth, deep strikes to the baseline, and she held for 5-2 and went on to serve out the set, 6-3.
It had been an exhausting 49 minutes, and Svitolina left the court. That allowed Stephens to have a long, relaxed and encouraging chat with her coach.
Svitolina had, it seems, had an encouraging chat with herself in her minutes off court. She came back in a more proactive state of mind, came to the net, held, and then pressed Stephens. It earned her the reward, a break in the fourth game, 3-1.
Not for long. Stephens wrenched back the initiative, and no matter how hard Svitolina worked, she could not stave off the third break point. Back on serve.
Again, not for long. Svitolina got her business face on, upped the pace, picked off a forehand winner for break point, and clenched her fist on the break, 4-2. This time, she held on to her serve, and Stephens began to look a little tight, a little weary, as the Ukrainian woman ran her ragged with precision and persistence. Sure enough, Svitolina got the break, 6-2, to level the match.
She had the momentum, and she also appeared to have the energy. Could she, as her coach stressed, “play in the moment”?
She held, and produced a stunning sprint to pick off a drop winner in a nine-minute second game, 2-0—and the Singapore crowd erupted.
Stephens began to dig deep, though, and long rallies and three break points made up a 10-minute hold, and a fist-pump celebrated 3-0. But once again, not for long. Stephens got a second wind, won eight out of nine points for 2-3—but was promptly broken again with whipped forehands to one wing and then the other, and this time Svitolina held, 5-2.
A double fault from Stephens suggested just how tired she was, while Svitolina looks full of energy, and a final backhand wide from the American sealed the Ukrainian’s victory, 6-2, after almost two and a half hours.
This was the last match of the five-year residency of the WTA Finals in Singapore, and an appropriately fine finale.
For Svitolina in particular, it could well be the confidence boost, and launch-pad, to greater heights next season. She said:
“This is a very special moment for me: Singapore is going to say very long in my heart… It’s going to bring lots of confidence that I finished the season on a high note.”
A Major title, perhaps? It is certainly not out of the question for the unbeaten final champion in Singapore.
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