WTA Finals: Preview and key talking points as world No. 1 ranking is up for grabs in Singapore

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The 47th edition of the WTA Finals commences in Singapore on Sunday with Venus Williams taking on Karolina Pliskova (13:00 Dubai time), and Garbine Muguruza facing Jelena Ostapenko in White Group action.

Red Group play begins on Monday with world No. 1 Simona Halep squaring off against Caroline Garcia (15:30 Dubai time) and Elina Svitolina clashing with Caroline Wozniacki.

Here's a closer look at the tournament and the key talking points surrounding the fourth staging of the event in Singapore.

[caption id="attachment_252406" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Leader of the pack: Simona Halep. Leader of the pack: Simona Halep.[/caption]

WHO WILL END THE YEAR AT THE TOP?



As has been the case multiple times throughout the season, the No. 1 ranking is on the line this week in Singapore and the fact that seven of the eight players can walk away from the tournament with the top spot means the stakes are even higher. The entire field, except Garcia, can finish the year at the summit of the standings and the players aren't shying away from the prospect.

"It (the No. 1 ranking) is important, I'm not going to lie but I know I have to play well," says Muguruza, who spent four weeks at No. 1 before Halep replaced her earlier this month. " I'm happy that I got it in the past, and now I'm not that nervous or obsessed."

Halep echoed Muguruza's thoughts saying: "I think for everyone it is the most important thing to finish the year No.1, but it is not going to be easy."

Pliskova, who spent eight weeks at No. 1, said: "This tournament is really going to decide who is going to finish the year world number one. I think everybody has a good chance."

If the 37-year-old Venus pulls it off, she would return to the top of the rankings for the first time since July 2002.

Svitolina and Ostapenko are the only two No. 1 contenders this week who haven't made it to the top before.

[caption id="attachment_252404" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Svitolina is the 1st WTA Finals qualifier from Ukraine. Svitolina is the 1st WTA Finals qualifier from Ukraine.[/caption]

THE DEBUTANTES


Three of the eight players in Singapore are making their WTA Finals debut -- Svitolina, Ostapenko and Garcia.

Svitolina owns a remarkable 7-1 win-loss record against top-five opposition in 2017 and is 10-3 against top-10 players. The Ukrainian is 6-3 head-to-head against her fellow Red Group players and has won a remarkable five titles in 2017, including three Premier 5 tournaments (Dubai, Rome, Toronto).

Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion and the youngest WTA Finals qualifier since 2010, has a tough task ahead of her in Singapore, where she owns a 1-5 head-to-head record against her fellow White Group players. The 20-year-old comes into the tournament with momentum on her side though having won Seoul, and made semi-finals in Wuhan and Beijing, in her last three events.

[caption id="attachment_252405" align="aligncenter" width="640"]On a roll: Caroline Garcia. On a roll: Caroline Garcia.[/caption]

Speaking of momentum, Garcia has plenty of it herself. The Frenchwoman pulled off a stunning double by winning Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back and is currently on an 11-match winning streak. She stands out in her White Group as a big-hitter amongst players who rely heavily on their superior movement and retrieving skills. Garcia will need her wheels to get through that group. She is 2-5 against her Red Group peers but can find solace in the fact that she beat both Halep and Svitolina en route to the Beijing title a few weeks ago.

A TALE OF TWO STYLES


Take a quick glance at the two groups and you can't help but notice a particular theme: the White Group is mostly about the power-hitters (Pliskova, Venus, Muguruza and Ostapenko), and feature all-out aggression, while the Red Group will have more lengthy baseline rallies and will be more of a physical battle.

Queen Vee.

VENUS' RETURN


This is Venus' first appearance at the Finals since 2009. Having reached two Grand Slam finals in 2017, the American is enjoying a resurgent season and seems to be having the time of her life on tour. The photo above is of Venus dancing her way onto the purple carpet at the Singapore draw ceremony. Venus won the WTA Finals in 2008 and is making her fifth appearance at the season finale.

[caption id="attachment_252408" align="aligncenter" width="640"]New team: Pliskova and Stubbs. New team: Pliskova and Stubbs.[/caption]

PLISKOVA SANS KOTYZA


The Czech ace queen parted ways with her coach David Kotyza last month and has Australian Rennae Stubbs helping her in Singapore this week. Will the new set-up pay dividends right away, or was this a gamble from Pliskova? This is her second WTA Finals appearance and she owns a 1-2 record at the tournament.

MUGURUZA AND HER PLAYER OF THE YEAR STATUS


Garbine Muguruza was voted the WTA Player of the Year but we can't deny it was a tight contest with several other competitors also worthy of that title. Success in Singapore for the Spaniard could potentially put any debate around this to bed.

THE ALTERNATES


This week's alternates are Kristina Mladenovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Since 2003, when the Finals shifted to the current round robin format, the alternates have been called on seven times, most recently in 2012 when Sam Stosur stepped in. Mladenovic is on a 10-match losing streak and has featured in the Finals before in doubles, while Kuznetsova has made six previous appearances in singles.


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Sharapova beats Shuai in straight sets to reach first final since drugs ban

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Sharapova beat Peng Shuai 6-3, 6-1 to advance to the Tianjin Open final.

Five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova crushed Peng Shuai 6-3, 6-1 at the Tianjin Open on Saturday to reach her first final since serving a 15-month doping ban.

The 30-year-old Russian, playing on a wildcard in the seventh tournament of her comeback, hit top gear as she swept aside the Chinese third seed in one hour, 18 minutes.

In front of a large home crowd, a businesslike Sharapova broke four times and conceded zero breaks of her own before wrapping up the semi-final with a clinical crosscourt forehand.

In Sunday’s final – her first since she won the Italian Open in May 2015 – she will be the red-hot favourite against 102nd-ranked Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who beat qualifier Sara Errani 6-1, 6-3.

Sharapova has had a stop-start and injury-hit season since her controversial return at Stuttgart in April, following her ban for using the banned substance meldonium.

World No. 102 Sabalenka will be Sharapova's opponent in the final.

World No. 102 Sabalenka will face Sharapova in the final.

The statuesque former world number one reached the Stuttgart semis but she retired in the Italian Open second round and also withdrew from her second-round match at Stanford.

Sharapova missed Wimbledon qualifying because of injury and she wasn’t offered a wildcard to the French Open, but she reached the US Open last 16 on her return to Grand Slam tennis.

She has cut a swathe through the limited draw in Tianjin, only dropping one set so far in her victories over Irina-Camelia Begu, Magda Linette, Stefanie Voegele and Peng.

Sharapova, one of the world’s highest-earning female athletes, will now expect to win her 36th career title and end a trophy drought of more than two years, the longest since her debut win in 2003.

By contrast Sabalenka, 19, is gunning for her first WTA title after a run to the Tianjin final that included wins over China’s Duan Ying-Ying and Lin Zhu.

Sharapova, currently ranked 86th, has also been handed a wildcard for next week’s Kremlin Cup in Moscow, which she will play for the first time since 2007.

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Naomi Osaka shocks her idol Venus Williams in Hong Kong

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A day to remember: For Naomi Osaka.

Venus Williams suffered a shock exit in the second round of the Hong Kong Open on Wednesday, comprehensively beaten 7-5, 6-2 by teenager Naomi Osaka.

Japan’s top-ranked player reeled off eight consecutive games at one stage to power into the quarter-finals.

It had all seemed to be going to plan for the American second seed Williams when she broke the 19-year-old Osaka in the fifth game of the opening set.

But then the Williams first serve deserted her when serving for the set at 5-4.

Two double faults and a series of fierce ground strokes from Osaka which unerringly kissed the lines enabled the world number 64 to break twice and take the set 7-5.

“She played well,” a disappointed 37-year-old Williams told reporters. “You know I made a few errors at 5-4 and after that she played pretty flawless. I can only give her credit.”

Osaka, who had made headlines when she knocked Angelique Kerber out of the US Open in the first round last month, continued in the same vein at the start of the second set and raced into a 5-0 lead.

“I felt like I played offensively and hit really deep hard balls but she had the luck today and could return those balls even harder and deeper,” said Williams.

Williams briefly rallied to 5-2, but after a pep talk from Osaka’s coach, the Japanese refocused and closed out the match on her serve at the second time of asking after an hour and 24 minutes.

“Venus is someone I’ve respected and admired,” said Osaka, who had not been born when Williams reached her first Grand Slam final, at the 1997 US Open.

“I’ve grown up watching her. Even though she someone I admire, it’s just another opponent at the end of the day so I tried to focus hard.

“I feel like even if I hit one semi-short ball she would come in and crush it, so I had to play really well.”

Earlier, the seventh seed Daria Gavrilova battled into the quarter-finals with a 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 win over American Shelby Rogers.

Rogers and Gavrilova renewed their rivalry at Victoria Park after last month setting a record for the longest ever women’s singles match at the US Open with a three hours and 33 minute epic.

“I was really motivated,” said the world number 22 Gavrilova after avenging her Flushing Meadows defeat.

“She has such a great serve I knew I had to take my chances on her second serve.”

Rogers had come out on top 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 in their marathon New York encounter but on this occasion Gavrilova raced to win the first set 6-1 in just 26 minutes.

Rogers, ranked 55, hit back immediately to take the second 6-2 in a scrappy encounter littered with errors.

With both players coming under pressure on their serve in the final set it seemed a matter of who would crack first.

And at 2-2 and 0-30 it was Rogers who blinked, serving back-to-back double faults to hand the Russian-born Australian the crucial break.

Another followed and the Australian closed out the match in an hour and 44 minutes.

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