American veteran Venus Williams kept alive her dreams of winning the WTA Finals and making a shock return to world number one when she knocked out second-ranked Garbine Muguruza in straight sets on Thursday.
Williams, 37, defeated Muguruza 7-5, 6-4 in one hour and 41 minutes to become the second semi-finalist out of White Group behind world number three Karolina Pliskova, who finished top.
The seven-time Grand Slam winner moved around the court crisply, showing no ill effects from Tuesday’s three-hour marathon against Jelena Ostapenko, as she dumped out Wimbledon champion Muguruza.
“I was happy to win the last point,” Williams said. “It is not easy out here, you have to play every point well otherwise you lose the game.
“I had some great coaching coming into the game, I hope we can win some more.”
With the victory, Williams maintains her hopes of returning to world number one — a position she last held in 2002 — by winning the season finale on Sunday.
But it was a tame end for Muguruza, the WTA Player of the Year who demolished Williams in this year’s Wimbledon final, but who faded in Singapore after a strong start.
With both players needing to win to progress, they came out looking sharp but they also struggled to hold serve and Williams broke Muguruza five times to propel her to victory.
“I’m very proud of this year. It’s not going to change,” said Muguruza after getting eliminated from the tournament. “I knew here that it’s going to be tough, the best eight players are playing.
“My year has been incredible and best so far. I improved so many things. That’s what I’m going to take.”
The win means Williams, who lifted the trophy in 2008, has never failed to reach the semi-finals in five appearances at the season-ending tournament.
Earlier, the already-qualified Pliskova lost in straight sets to Jelena Ostapenko in her final White Group match, and admitted it was hard to lift herself for the dead rubber.
“It was really tough to push myself and play my best tennis when you know you’ve qualified,” the 25-year-old said, after she was outclassed 6-3, 6-1 in 66 minutes by the French Open champion.
“I haven’t ever been in this situation. I didn’t know how I was going to feel and how she was going to play. I think she played amazing.”
Despite the setback, Pliskova remained confident of bouncing back in her semi-final on Saturday. “I think it will now feel like a normal tournament,” she said.
“Hopefully I’ll be ready, and I’m sure I’m going to feel much better and play much better.”
Ostapenko’s victory, her first in Singapore, was a consolation after a disappointing WTA Finals debut, where she was eliminated after a three-set defeat to Venus Williams on Tuesday.
The Latvian said she was happy to finish the season on a high. “I think I was playing quite relaxed, and I just showed my best today,” Ostapenko said.
“It’s my first time (in the WTA Finals) and hopefully there are more times I will be here.”
A rampant Caroline Wozniacki said a more assertive approach is fuelling her spectacular start to the WTA Finals after she thrashed world number one Simona Halep in straight sets on Wednesday.
The 27-year-old stunned Halep 6-0, 6-2 in just 63 minutes in Singapore to storm into the last four of the year-end tournament for the loss of just four games.
The sixth-seeded Dane also crushed Elina Svitolina in her opening match, winning the last 10 games en route to a 6-2, 6-0 victory.
Wozniacki, a renowned counter-puncher, said she has enjoyed playing a more aggressive game in the round-robin format.
“Even if you lose the first match, you still have nothing to lose,” she told reporters. “It’s just a nice cushion to have. I think that kind of motivates me to start off strong and just go for it.
“I just ran a lot of balls down and I played aggressive and I mixed up the pace. Everything I wanted to do was going my way.”
Wozniacki is one of seven players in the eight-woman field who could finish the year as world number one by lifting the trophy on Sunday.
She said she was well suited to the slower court of Singapore, where she was a semi-finalist in 2014.
“I think this court is great for the all-round player, who can play both aggressive and defence,” she said. “I just have been feeling good and am playing at a high level.”
The former world number one broke three times in an almost flawless first set, in which she served at 94 percent and made just two unforced errors.
Wozniacki, looking focused and determined, won the first seven games against Halep, whose hold on the top ranking looks increasingly shaky.
Wozniacki barely let up in the second set as she continued to masterfully move the flummoxed Romanian around the court, hitting the lines with precision.
Halep finally got on the board early in the second set but she was broken in the fourth game and then again on match point, capitulating with a meek forehand into the net.
“I made too many mistakes and she didn’t miss,” Halep said. “It was one of my bad days. During the points I missed too many and I wanted to over-hit the ball.”
It was a bitterly disappointing evening for Halep, who only became world number one earlier this month and who was impressive in her opening victory over Caroline Garcia.
“I just maybe didn’t try enough to keep the ball on court, but in my opinion I tried. I fought. I didn’t give up. But I just couldn’t feel, couldn’t have the touch of the ball today,” added Halep.
The 26-year-old now finds herself in a battle to reach the semi-finals, and next plays Svitolina in a crunch match on Friday.
Pliskova, who is in contention to finish world number one, continued her stranglehold over the Spaniard with a 6-2, 6-2 victory in just 62 minutes. The Czech has not dropped a set from her two games to ensure she finishes top of the White Group.
She will play her final round robin match on Thursday against winless number seven seed Jelena Ostapenko, who has been eliminated.
Even though the match against Ostapenko will be a dead rubber, Pliskova said she wanted to continue her rich vein of form.
“Maybe it’s going to have a little bit of a different atmosphere but… I don’t want to lose any of these matches I’m playing,” she told reporters after the match.
“It would be nice to win all three (matches) in the group. If I can win a few matches in a row, it will give me extra confidence.”
It was her seventh victory from nine starts over the world number two, who appeared hampered by an upper leg injury, which required strapping early in the match.
The result means Muguruza and Venus Williams, in a re-match of the Wimbledon final this year, will fight for the last semi-finals spot from the White Group when they clash on Thursday.
Cruises past Muguruza 6-2, 6-2! pic.twitter.com/Ma3T4k0Xsn
— WTA (@WTA) October 24, 2017
Muguruza said the strapping to her left thigh was “just prevention” and she lamented her performance.
“I think my tennis wasn’t there tonight. I didn’t start well,” she said, adding she was “a little bit disappointed”.
Pliskova came out firing with her trademark serve proving lethal. She had a 70 percent success rate with her first serve in the early going and relentlessly targeted Muguruza’s body.
The 25-year-old cruised through the first set in just 26 minutes and the one-sided rout continued.
Pliskova won the first five games of the second set before Muguruza saved some face by winning consecutive games.
But it wasn’t long until Pliskova deservedly sealed her spot in the final four.
Earlier, Williams revived her WTA Finals campaign with an epic three-hour, three-set victory over Ostapenko.
The 37-year-old world number five rebounded from her opening defeat to Pliskova with a marathon 7-5, 6-7 (7/3), 7-5 win over three hours and 13 minutes — just one minute shy of the record played at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
The 37 games played was a WTA Finals tournament record.
“A win is a win. That’s all I can say,” a terse Williams told reporters after the match.
The result will sting for Ostapenko who started brightly, working Williams around the court and hitting the lines with precision, notably several piercing cross-court winners.
The 20-year-old delivered 12 of the first 13 winners in the match before her confidence nosedived as she struggled with her serve, which was broken nine times by Williams.
Ostapenko admitted problems on her serve brought about her undoing.
“I was just a little bit tight in some moments,” she said. “I fought until the last point but my serve wasn’t really amazing today.”