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October 19 2019
Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
20 October 2018

The year-ending WTA Finals gathers the world’s best and tests their skill under pressure, their stamina after a long season and their character in an intensely competitive environment. Who will emerge the champion of champions?

In each of the past three years, the WTA Finals has thrown up a surprise winner — Agnieszka Radwanska (2015), Dominika Cibulkova (2016) and Caroline Wozniacki (2017). While it can argued that anybody who makes the world’s top 8 isn’t to be underestimated, the very nature of the opponents they beat — Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams respectively — tells you they weren’t necessarily the favourites.

How is it going to be this year? The jury has always been split on how the season-ending championships should be viewed — a standalone tournament with a heft to match the Majors or icing on the cake? Over the last three years it has been the former and in the 14 years preceding that, when Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, swept 11 of the 14, it was the latter.

In Singapore this time, for Wozniacki, Kerber and Naomi Osaka, three of the four Grand Slam winners in 2018, the title will serve as a cherry on top, rendering an already great season greater. If any of the other five in Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens triumphs, it will define their year, for they have, combined, reached a solitary Major final.

There is more yet. Despite World No. 1 Simona Halep’s withdrawal with a back injury, it’s still a competitive field, with five players possessing Slam-winning experience. The last time this occurred was 2012.

Also, the format — a two-group round-robin league followed by the semifinals and final — ensures there is sufficient room to stage a comeback. One-off flashy wins are therefore less consequential. In fact, both Radwanska and Cibulkova went all the way after having lost two out of three round-robin matches.

The playing styles on offer are an eclectic mix. Stephens is one of the best counter-punchers on tour with the right concoction of offence and defence. Kerber and Wozniacki’s games are predominantly based on defence, with an unparalleled ability to grind out wins. In Kvitova, Osaka, Svitolina and Pliskova, we have the best exponents of first-strike tennis. And Bertens is a giant-killer.

Unlike 2017, when seven of the eight players had a shot at finishing the year as No. 1, there is little suspense this time around. Halep has already sewn that up. But there is still plenty to play for. And with just two of the eight having tasted success in the Finals, there will be no dearth of hungry, motivated players.

A look at the contenders:

CAROLINE WOZNIACKI

Ranked: No. 2

Age: 28

2018 win-loss: 40-15 (73%)

Titles: 3 (Australian Open, Eastbourne, Beijing)

Runner-up: 1 (Auckland)

 

A repeat is very much on the cards for Caroline Wozniacki

A repeat is very much on the cards for Caroline Wozniacki   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

The absence of a Grand Slam title was often used to tarnish former World No. 1 Wozniacki’s success. But she has silenced everyone with the best 12 months of her career. It started with the WTA Finals win this time last year, followed by her first-ever Major and the subsequent return to the top of the world rankings.

After winning Eastbourne on grass in June, a mental let-up followed. However, the title in Beijing, one of the four WTA Premier Mandatory events, has calmed nerves.

The win was, in fact, quite revealing. While the sheer variety of the opponents she beat, from Belinda Bencic to Anett Kontaveit to Anastasija Sevastova, brought to the fore her highly adaptable game, her serving was impressive. She also repeatedly won from the front of the court, an area she has been quietly improving on.

Slow, high-bouncing balls are not to the Dane’s liking, but Singapore isn’t such a surface. A repeat is very much on the cards.

Key Stat: In Beijing two weeks ago, Wozniacki did not lose a set during a championship run for the first time in over seven years (since New Haven, 2011)

ANGELIQUE KERBER

Ranked: No. 3

Age: 30

2018 win-loss: 45-17 (73%)

Titles: 2 (Sydney, Wimbledon)

Runner-up: 0

 

Kerber may have abruptly split with her coach of one year, Wim Fissette, on the eve of the Finals, but should still find her groove in Singapore.

Kerber may have abruptly split with her coach of one year, Wim Fissette, on the eve of the Finals, but should still find her groove in Singapore.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

After a freefall in 2017, Kerber started 2018 outside the top 20. But armed with a clean slate, with not many points to defend, Kerber has now risen to No. 3.

In her first tournament of the year, she knocked out Venus Williams in Sydney en route to the title and in July captured Wimbledon, her third Slam.

She may have abruptly split with her coach of one year, Wim Fissette, on the eve of the Finals, but should still find her groove in Singapore.

The competition has a history of rewarding those with powerful games. But in Wozniacki’s success last edition, Kerber has a cue.

With her foot-speed, there are very few balls the German can’t track down. Her constant changes in pace can throw the big-hitters off gear as Serena discovered in the Wimbledon final. And with her lefty angle, she is more than your average retriever.

But after Wimbledon, she hasn’t strung together more than two wins at any event. It’s no crisis, but another early defeat could stick out like a sore thumb.

Key Stat: In 2016, her stand-out year, Kerber won 47.1% of her return points. In 2018, she has done even better, winning 47.8%

NAOMI OSAKA

Ranked: No. 4

Age: 21

2018 win-loss: 42-17 (71%)

Titles: 2 (Indian Wells, US Open)

Runner-up: 1 (Tokyo)

 

Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
 

In claiming her maiden Grand Slam title, the 2018 US Open, Osaka displayed a kind of composure that belied her age. This was especially true in the final, which was thrown into chaos after Serena’s tirade against the chair umpire.

The way Osaka closed out the match — two service winners, a forehand winner and an ace — was indicative of her ability to hold her nerve when it mattered the most.

In Singapore, where she will be one of three debutants — Stephens and Bertens, the others — she probably has nothing to lose, which will make her doubly difficult to play against.

By instinct she is a risk-taker but against Serena she showed she could absorb everything the American threw at her and redirect them with panache.

After the Flushing Meadows high, when she could have so easily relaxed, she made the final in Tokyo and the semifinals in Beijing in consecutive tournaments. She is here to stay.

Key Stat: Of the eight, she has the best service game winning rate (77.2%)

KAROLINA PLISKOVA

Ranked: No. 5

Age: 26

2018 win-loss: 43-20 (68%)

Titles: 2 (Stuttgart, Tokyo)

Runner-up: 0

 

Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
 

After having reached her maiden Major final at the 2016 U.S. Open, beating both Serena and Venus, much was expected of Pliskova. In the two years since, she has been World No. 1, and made four quarterfinals and one semifinal in eight Slams. Still, the feeling is one of unfulfilled potential.

Even this year, the Czech’s only tournament win till last month was on indoor clay in Stuttgart, a surface most alien to her power-packed clutter-free game.

The fall has been encouraging though, as she bagged the title in Tokyo and finished a finalist in Tianjin. The addition of Grand Slam champions Rennae Stubbs and Conchita Martinez to her coaching team in August seems to have helped her focus.

Yet, she nearly missed out on qualifying with an opening-round loss in Moscow this week before results elsewhere bailed her out. This might well be a blessing, for, last year, she admitted to having arrived in Singapore ‘tired’. She still reached the semifinals then and that’s what makes her a sleeping giant now.

Key Stat: Pliskova’s 382 aces this year are the highest of any qualifier in Singapore

ELINA SVITOLINA

Ranked: No. 6

Age: 24

2018 win-loss: 37-14 (73%)

Titles: 3 (Brisbane, Dubai, Rome)

Runner-up: 0

 

If Elina Svitolina improves on last edition’s result, with a new coach in tow, it can be deemed a success.

If Elina Svitolina improves on last edition’s result, with a new coach in tow, it can be deemed a success.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

Svitolina’s is a curious case. She has won more than half a dozen titles over the last two years, been among the top-5 players in the world and even had a shot at finishing 2017 as No. 1. Yet, the biggest prizes — namely the Majors — have eluded her.

This year, all three titles, including her successful defence of winners’ points in Dubai and Rome, have come in the first half. Her recent form is a worry; since the US Open, she is 2-3.

Still, she remains a threat. The Ukrainian hits the ball hard, maybe not as hard as Kvitova, but still strongly enough to be termed a weapon. What she is also blessed with is speed around the court.

Last year, when she made her debut at the Finals, she did take a certain liking to the slow and low-bouncing Singapore surface. If not for a tough three-set loss to Caroline Garcia, a place in the last four looked plausible. If she improves on last edition’s result, with a new coach in tow, it can be deemed a success.

Key Stat: Since the start of 2017, she is a perfect 8-0 in finals

PETRA KVITOVA

Ranked: No. 7

Age: 28

2018 win-loss: 47-14 (77%)

Titles: 5 (St. Petersburg, Doha, Prague, Madrid, Birmingham)

Runner-up: 0

 

Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
 

Nobody plays no-frills, zero-sum tennis as well as Kvitova. It’s an approach that has characterised her game ever since she smashed the door down to win Wimbledon 2011. Equally, it is her bane too; the style can’t be easily tempered.

In the first half of 2018, when she won a tour-high five titles, including two back-to-back on clay, it raised hopes. However, a crushing first-round defeat at SW19 and a third-round exit at the U.S. Open added to similar results in the first two Majors (first round at the Australian Open and third round at Roland Garros), souring her year.

Leading into the fall, she did edge Serena Williams in a high-quality three-setter in Cincinnati. But she had little else to show in terms of results.

This is the Czech’s first full season after the horrific knife attack in late 2016 which left her unable to fist pump leave alone hold a racquet. So in a sense it is already a successful year. Can she use Singapore as a springboard for a better 2019?

Key Stat: Since winning the grass tune-up at Birmingham before Wimbledon, Kvitova has reached only one semifinal (Cincinnati) in eight tournaments

SLOANE STEPHENS

Ranked: No. 8

Age: 25

Match record: 33-18 (65%)

Titles: 1 (Miami)

Runner-up: 2 (French Open, Montreal)

 

Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
 

2018 has seen a lot of firsts for Stephens. In March, following her win at the Miami Open, her second biggest trophy after the 2017 U.S. Open, she broke into the top 10 for the first time in her career.

Then, when she reached the French Open final, she cracked the top 5, before going on to become the third-best player in the world in mid-July. Just when her second half of the season appeared to be turning into a slump, she finished a worthy runner-up to Halep in Montreal.

This constant zoning in and out is what makes Stephens an almost reluctant champion but also a dangerous proposition for rivals. Certain match-ups energise her, like the one against Halep. She plays in a similar way to the Romanian, always making the opponent hit one extra ball.

Also, she has the uncanny ability to handle players with diverse styles. At Roland Garros, she outwitted a clay artist in Daria Kasatkina and then neutralised the power of Madison Keys. If she turns up, the winner’s cheque can easily be hers.

Key Stat: To take Miami, she had to beat four Major champions — Garbine Muguruza, Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko

KIKI BERTENS

Ranked: No. 10

Age: 26

2018 win-loss: 43-20 (69%)

Titles: 3 (Charleston, Cincinnati, Seoul)

Runner-up: 1 (Madrid)

 

Last woman standing: Who will win the WTA Finals?
 

From seriously considering retirement at the end of last season to reaching the Finals, it has been quite a year for Bertens.

Earlier this month, when she broke into the top 10, she became the first woman from the Netherlands to reach the milestone in 22 years (Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, 1996).

Until she made the second week at Wimbledon, she was considered a clay specialist. All five of her titles had been on the dirt, so were her biggest final appearance (Madrid 2018) and best Grand Slam result (semifinal, French Open 2016).

Following the grass and hardcourt seasons, however, she has now morphed into an all-court warrior. She isn’t necessarily an out-and-out aggressor, but Bertens is comfortable hitting winners off either wing. The inside-out forehand is another weapon, making hers a deadly mix.

In the last four months alone, she has beaten Venus, Wozniacki, Svitolina, Halep, Kvitova twice and Pliskova twice. She is more than capable of going on another bull run next week.

Key Stat: Starting with Wimbledon this year, Bertens is 8-0 vs. top-10 players, four of whom she beat to win Cincinnati

 

 

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