Svitolina 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.
Stephens, a player who thrives on the biggest stages, 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.
Yet the very first days of the WTA Finals showed that both were in Singapore in great mental and physical shape, and determined to prove any doubters wrong. They won their openers, and went on to top their respective groups by winning their other two matches, as well.
But could they keep up their momentum? They would, in the event, both be tested to the maximum in long three-setters, and both come out fighting.
First it was Svitolina against Kiki Bertens, and they would produce a classic that had the crowd gripped almost from the first in a contest that pitted the nimble, intelligent and accurate shot-making of Svitolina against the all-court power and attack of the Dutch woman.
An exchange of breaks in the middle of the first set preluded an unbroken run to 6-5, but then Bertens threw in an untimely nervy game, and double faulted on break point—set point: Svitolina led, 7-5.
This evenly poised match unfolded through a long second set that Bertens led with a break from the off, and she served for it at 5-4, having failed to convert a set point in the previous game. Now the nerves took hold, and from 40-0 up, Bertens lost five straight points. A couple of holds, and the two would face a tie-break.
Svitolina edged a quick 2-0 lead, but Bertens made a run of four points, only for Svitolina to level at 5-5. The next point would bring up either set point or match-point: it was the former, and Bertens cracked a superb return-of-serve winner onto the baseline to level the match.
It was clear from the first three games that neither woman was going to ease up. Svitolina broke immediately, but then Bertens pressed through almost a quarter of an hour and eight deuces to break at the fourth time of asking: 1-1.
And the third game brought more of the same—deuces, break points, and another breakthrough for Svitolina. But the Dutch woman could not this time level the score, though she came close to pulling off another turn-around in the very last game. Svitolina absorbed everything thrown at her, including two break points, to serve it out, 6-4, after 2hrs 38mins—still unbeaten in Singapore.
Could Stephens pull off the same trick? It certainly did not look that way in the first hour. Pliskova stormed out of the blocks, resisted the single break point she faced, and blasted her way with big-hitting, aggressive tactics to the first set, 6-0.
It continued to look bleak for Stephens in the second set, broken in the second game, 2-0 down. No wonder, then, that she screamed in determination as she converted a break-back point in the third game: The match was 55 minutes old and she had her first game on the board.
But the errors continued to fly from the American’s racket, and she had to hold off a break point to hold, 2-2. At last, though, she found her timing and confidence, and broke again, 3-2, as Pliskova misfired a couple of forehands.
Pliskova called for a quick consultation with coach Rennae Stubbs, and sure enough, the Czech calmed things down, focused on her penetrating game, and drew more errors and the break back, 3-3.
But Pliskova was still under concerted pressure, and a double fault on break point saw her trail again. All at once, she found herself serving to save the set at 3-5.
She did so, but Stephens, playing the kind of assured and varied tennis that had won her that US title more than a year ago, made no mistake: She served it out, 6-4.
And Stephens continued her aggressive tennis in the tough opening game of the third set to break. It did not last long: Pliskova hit back strong and hard with a love break. But that did not last long, either: Stephens broke again, drawing netted replies to her deep baseline strikes.
The spirit of the Czech seemed then to be broken, and her legs were tired. Stephens, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, full of running, clear-sighted in tactics and with great rhythm on both wings. She held, broke again, and served for the match, 6-1, after almost two hours.
So Stephens will play Svitolina for the fourth time in their careers, though their only match in the last four years was in Montreal in August this year, a straight-sets win for the American.
But with both looking fit and confident, it promises to be a close, compelling conclusion to what has been a gripping season finale.
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