WTA Finals preview: Naomi Osaka leads debutantes charge, Caroline Wozniacki looking to repeat

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When Simona Halep was asked to put her thinking cap on and analyse the WTA Finals field – now that she has withdrawn from the tournament with a back injury and won’t be competing – the Romanian was unable to pick a clear favourite.

The top-eight line-up for the season finale in Singapore reflects the incredible depth of the women’s game these days and a quick look at the match-ups indicates we’re in for a real scorcher this upcoming week in the Lion City.

“I can say I see some players that have a bigger chance, actually Caroline Wozniacki because she won last year and I think the court suits her,” Halep told reporters in Singapore on Saturday, after picking up the WTA Player of the Year award the night before.

Petra Kvitova has a big chance. Naomi Osaka has a big chance. I think everybody has a big chance. You never know. Also the emotions will play a big thing. We will see. But I’m not gonna watch, just to tell you. No, not even one minute.”

Here’s a look at three main talking points ahead of the start of the WTA Finals on Sunday…

DEBUTANTES ON A MISSION

The three WTA Finals first-timers, Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens, were all drawn together in the Red Group alongside 2016 runner-up Angelique Kerber. Of the trio, Osaka comes to Singapore with the biggest momentum, having won the US Open, made final in Tokyo, and reached semi-finals in Beijing in her last three tournaments.

The fourth-ranked Japanese – the youngest in the field – seems to be adjusting nicely to her place among the world’s best and has the benefit of previous playing experience on centre court at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, as she played and won the final of the WTA Rising Stars event there in 2015.

While others may take their feet off the gas pedal once they’ve achieved a major goal like winning their first Slam, Osaka is hungry for more and ready for battle.

“Of course I’m very happy that I am in this position that I am, but I don’t necessarily want to have the feeling of satisfaction, because that means that, I don’t know, you think you have reached your goal. For me, I don’t want to stop here,” the 21-year-old told reporters in Singapore on Saturday.

“Of course this tournament hasn’t even started yet, so definitely, to play this tournament, you have to have the goal of winning on your mind. You’re playing against the best players in the world. So I don’t know. Like I just want to compete, and after this tournament is over maybe I can think about being satisfied. But for now, I don’t know. I just feel really competitive.”

Bertens is also familiar with the venue having qualified for the WTA Finals in doubles last year, alongside Johanna Larsson, where they were runners-up. The Dutchwoman has won two of her last six tournaments, in Cincinnati and Seoul, and can rely on her tour-leading 10-5 record against top-10 opposition this season when she faces her fellow Singapore qualifiers this week.

Stephens, whose year is highlights by winning Miami and reaching the finals at Roland Garros and Montreal, was winless in Asia (post-US Open) throughout her career up until she snapped her losing streak with two victories in Beijing earlier this month. While the American has lost her opening match in three of her last four tournaments, she loves a big stage and tends to step up against the top guns. Stephens is also a combined 6-1 head-to-head against her fellow Red Group members, including a 4-1 lead over top-seeded Kerber.

BACK WHERE THEY BELONG

Kerber and Kvitova are back in the WTA Finals for a fourth and fifth time respectively. Kerber is back in the fray for the first time since she was runner-up in 2016 while Kvitova makes her return to the event for the first time since she was runner-up in 2015.

Kerber, who split with her coach Wim Fissette ahead of the tournament despite having a stellar year with the Belgian, ended 2017 ranked 21 in the world, and was far off the cut-off for Singapore. She won Wimbledon and Sydney this season and is currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

Kvitova, a WTA Finals champion in 2011, missed the season finale the last two years but is seeded No. 4 this week and leads the tour in 2018 with five titles won. The Czech lefty was happy to report that centre court this year plays faster than previous years in Singapore – faster surfaces suit her game better – and she is a comfortable 18-6 against her fellow White Group members head-to-head.

She also likes the format of the event, and carries a 7-1 head-to-head mark against her first opponent Elina Svitolina on Sunday.

“I think that, like, from the first match we are meeting the best players. So that’s like obviously I love to play the best of players on the big stage. This is kind of all eight and above that, so from the first match we really have to be ready for that. That’s why I think is bringing the best for me,” said Kvitova.

CARO LOOKING TO REPEAT

Wozniacki is bidding to become the first player to successfully defend her WTA Finals title since Serena Williams won back-to-back crowns in 2013 and 2014. The Dane’s success in Singapore last fall made way for further glory at the start of this season, as she captured her maiden Grand Slam title in Australia in January. The Dane is a combined 12-14 head-to-head against her fellow White Group members and opens her campaign on Sunday against Pliskova, in a rematch of last year’s semi-final. Wozniacki received a much-needed boost during the Asian swing when she picked up the title in Beijing earlier this month.

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Daria Kasatkina pulls off stunning comeback to win emotional Moscow final against Ons Jabeur

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Tennis magicians: Moscow champion Kasatkina (r) and runner-up Jabeur.

In a high-stakes final between two of the most entertaining players in the women’s game, Daria Kasatkina and Ons Jabeur delivered a thriller to remember in Moscow that ended with both competitors on the ground – one weeping uncontrollably for winning the title, and the other shedding tears of pain brought on by cramps.

Kasatkina pulled off a tremendous comeback, rallying from 2-6, 1-4 down against an on-fire Jabeur to defeat the Tunisian 2-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 in a two-hour battle. The win didn’t just give Kasatkina her first title on home soil, it also guaranteed the Russian her top-10 debut on Monday.

For Jabeur, it was a painful and emotional ending to an otherwise career-defining week that saw her become the first Arab woman to make a WTA semi-final and final.

The 24-year-old, who started the week in Moscow ranked 101 in the world, won seven matches in seven days through qualifying and the main draw, upsetting three top-eight seeds along the way, and as a result, will rise to a career-high No. 63 on Monday.

It will be the highest ranking ever achieved by an Arab or North African woman and it is particularly impressive considering she was down to 180 in the rankings just four months ago.

For Kasatkina, Saturday’s clash provided a full circle moment after she lost last year’s Moscow final to Julia Goerges. The 21-year-old now owns two titles from five finals reached and improves to 14-4 win-loss at her home tournament.

“I remember 10 years ago as a kid, I was coming here just to watch this tournament and I was dreaming of just standing on this centre court holding the trophy and here I am, it’s a dream come true,” said Kasatkina.

Jabeur, playing the first WTA final of her career, started the match strong, showing far fewer nerves than her more experienced opponent. The Tunisian took the opening set in 24 minutes, and was particularly deadly on her forehand side.

Kasatkina broke to start the second set, but Jabeur retaliated and took three games in a row to lead 4-1. Just two games away from claiming a historic title, Jabeur blinked, and Kasatkina awakened. Multiple visits from Kasatkina’s coach, Philippe Dehaes proved to be the catalyst she needed to turn things around.

“You’re still in the match, you have 10 minutes to find a solution,” the Belgian told her when she was down 2-6, 1-4, giving her some tactical advice on serve and return. “What do you think? Don’t think that it’s not possible, you’re in the match, you going to serve, we’re going to play, what do you feel? Give me something concrete.

“Dasha listen to me, this match is not finished yet. If you think it’s finished, we change the job you and me. I don’t want to change the job. I want to stay here, I want to win this title with you. And we’re going to do it because you’re going to play every point the same way. Prove to yourself that you can fight until the end. This is the challenge of your young career.”

Kasatkina held serve the next game then broke back and was soon on level terms with Jabeur at 4-4. The Russian No. 6 seed broke Jabeur to lead 6-5 but was pegged back and the set went to a tiebreak. This time, Kasatkina opened up a lead and wouldn’t let go as she wrapped up the set to force a decider.

“I don’t like saying the word ‘lose’ but if you lose, you lose like a champ,” Dehaes told her upon his return to the court after the second set.

Kasatkina broke for a 2-0 lead in the decider but Jabeur fired back. The home favourite started finding depth in all her shots and dazzled on defence as Jabeur lost a bit of the spring in her step.

Kasatkina got the decisive break in the eighth game to lead 5-3 but nerves hit her the next game and Jabeur miraculously broke serve despite clutching at her left thigh in pain as cramps started to take over. During the changeover at 5-4, the Tunisian was in tears and was unable to sit down from the pain. Serving to stay in the match, Jabeur could barely serve and Kasatkina secured the Kremlin Cup title moments later.

She fell face down crying tears of joy then walked over the other side of the net to help Jabeur up. A trainer came to her aid and together with Kasatkina, they escorted Jabeur to her bench after the Russian gave her opponent some consolation words.

“I think it was a good week for you, very tough, I saw you give everything today. This is what sport is about and I really appreciate that we had this match today and I wish you all the best and good luck. Your team is amazing,” Kasatkina told Jabeur during the trophy ceremony.

“I’m really sure it’s not our last final, and see you in Maldives or somewhere.”

After receiving some treatment post-match, Jabeur congratulated Kasatkina and thanked the Tunisians who supported her in the stands, including her nation’s ambassador to Russia.

“This is my first WTA Premier final for me, hopefully I can do more next year,” said Jabeur. “Just one last message to my husband who is Russian, I just want to tell him [I love you in Russian],” she signed off with a smile.

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Ons Jabeur continues historic week in Moscow by reaching her first WTA final

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Tenacious Tunisian: Ons Jabeur.

Ons Jabeur’s history-making week in Moscow continued with yet another big scalp taken down by the Tunisian qualifier, who became the first Arab woman to reach a WTA final with her victory over fifth-seeded Anastasija Sevastova on Friday.

Jabeur, who has now won seven consecutive matches in the Russian capital through qualifying and the main draw, knocked out three top-eight seeds so far this week – No. 3 seed Sloane Stephens, No. 8 seed Anett Kontaveit and Sevastova – and will be searching for a fourth victory against seeded opposition when she takes on No. 6 Daria Kasatkina in Saturday’s final.

A former French Open junior champion, Jabeur has dazzled this week with a combination of an aggressive game, mixed with her deft touch and signature drop shots. She came back from a break down twice in the final set against Sevastova on Friday, to defeat the top Latvian 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

“I’m really, really happy. It’s been a long, long week, many matches, and I’m really happy that I made it through to the final. Hopefully I can continue playing even better and finish the last match as good as the last matches,” Jabeur told Sport360 after her semi-final.”

On how she swung momentum back in her favour in the decider, she added: “I had nothing to lose actually. For me I was just trying to play my game, break her, put some pressure on her. I knew exactly where I wasn’t playing well, I made less mistakes of course after that. She was struggling with her serve so it was easier for me to break her. I tried to be relaxed because when I’m stressed I’m not playing really good.”

The world No. 101 will rise to at least 63 in the rankings on Monday, which would make her the highest-ranked Arab woman in the history of the WTA. Success over home favourite Kasatkina would see Jabeur crack the top-50 for the first time.

In a highly-entertaining affair that saw Jabeur hit two tweeners, the North African fired 45 winners to oust Sevastova and make her maiden WTA final appearance, at a Premier-level tournament no less.

Through her seven matches in Moscow so far, Jabeur has spent a total of 8hr 48 minutes on court. Despite playing seven days in a row, the 24-year-old feels ready to bring her A-game against Kasatkina.

“I’m okay. I was expecting myself to feel more tired but actually I’m feeling better, I’m good. Hopefully we’ll see tomorrow how I’m going to wake up but I hope I will have the energy to finish and have a great match tomorrow. I made it to the final so why not finish with a good result?” said Jabeur.

The affable Jabeur had a tough start to her Moscow qualifying campaign, dropping her first set to Fanny Stollar before recovering to win in three sets. She also had a tight clash with Britain’s Harriet Dart that ended in a final-set tiebreak. She went from strength to strength from then on, upsetting 2017 US Open champion and world No. 8 Sloane Stephens in her second round, which was Jabeur’s third career top-10 victory. She is now 4-7 against top-20 opposition and sports a unique game that can trouble many big guns in the future.

She’s been putting impressive numbers this week, leading the field in aces (21), first-serve points won (77.1%), service points won (64.2%), and service games won (82.9%).

Asked if she felt things started clicking for her at a specific match this week, she said: “Match by match, especially the first qualifying match, I didn’t start really good, but then I tried to come back. I wasn’t frustrated on the court,  I had good attitude, playing good matches. I had the click after doing well to win that match which gave me the confidence to know how I can switch from bad to good, from that moment on.”

The final promises to be a hot-shot filled extended highlight reel with both Kasatkina and Jabeur renowned for their on-court creativity. Kasatkina could secure a top-10 debut if she wins the title, and she’s searching for her first trophy on home soil.

The pair often spend the offseason together training in Slovakia, and trade jokes and trash talk, especially when their respective favourite football clubs – Real Madrid for Jabeur and Barcelona for Kasatkina – face-off.

The 14th-ranked Kasatkina, who also made the final in Moscow last year, losing to Julia Goerges, is 1-0 against Jabeur, haven beaten the Tunisian at the Rio Olympics in 2016, in three sets. Kasatkina advanced to Saturday’s title decider by defeating Britain’s Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-3. Jabeur is looking forward to facing Kasatkina and her home crowd.

“Dasha is playing really well lately, so it’s going to be a tough match tomorrow especially playing in Russia, in her country,” said Jabeur. “Hopefully I can play my game. The key tomorrow is for me to stay relaxed, to not stress. I made it to the final so why not win the title?”

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