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.[/caption]
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.
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.
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.
Today I accomplished one of my dreams ❤️❤️❤️
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) October 11, 2017
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.
Teenager topples No.2 seed Williams 7-5, 6-2! pic.twitter.com/TPfb3ZTAbX
— WTA (@WTA) October 11, 2017
“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.