Wimbledon champion Kerber bounced back from her opening defeat to Kiki Bertens by overcoming Naomi Osaka 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, to boost her semi-finals qualification chances.
Later in the evening, Stephens squeezed past Bertens 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-3 to record her second win in as many matches this week in Singapore but the American hasn’t secured passage to the semis just yet. A victory over Kerber for Stephens on Friday would ensure she advances as top of her group, but a loss wouldn’t discard her chances either.
US Open champion Osaka fell to 0-2 on her WTA Finals debut and appears to be suffering from a left hamstring problem. The third-seeded Japanese would not elaborate on the issue though, and still has a small chance of making it to the final four, but she’ll need to defeat Bertens on Friday and other results to fall in her favour.
“It’s nothing like that concerning, I think. Plus it’s like the last tournament of the year, so of course I’m going to, like, play my matches. Yeah, like, I don’t want to tell you something hurts. But it doesn’t feel good. So I’m just going to say that,” said a reluctant Osaka after her 2hr 29min defeat.
The 21-year-old admits she has struggled with her timing on the ball this week in the Lion City and lamented her low first-serve percentage – 50 per cent in Wednesday’s match, 53.3 per cent for the tournament, which is the lowest among the field.
“In a way I’m very, like, proud of myself for being able to make the matches so close without really having a first serve, but I don’t know. I feel like I’m not really sure how that’s going wrong, and I want to practice it,” she explained. “I don’t know. Like I’m playing against the best players in the world, so I feel like I want to be in the top form, but I’m not really there. So it’s a little bit depressing.”
Everyone’s favourite words: Percentage of games.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) October 24, 2018
Meanwhile, Stephens showcased some gritty tennis to get the better of Bertens, in what was a record-equalling sixth three-setter of this year’s WTA Finals. The mark ties the 2009 edition for the most three-set matches at the WTA Finals (since the round robin format returned in 2003).
Earlier in the day, WTA founder and tennis legend Billie Jean King heaped praise on Stephens, particularly her athleticism, but questioned the American’s hunger and continuous commitment.
“She’s very interesting, because she’s hit and miss and she’s erratic, but when she’s on, amazing. I think she’s one of the best athletes we have ever had in the sport. She’s like a gazelle around the court,” said King of the fifth-seeded Stephens.
“She can hit anything. Especially off the forehand she can hit so hard. She makes it feel effortless the way she plays, in a way. But if you really kind of analyse each thing separately, like I do when I watch, she’s simply, potential-wise, the sky’s the limit with her.
“Then you ask the question, but does she want it? Is she emotionally and physically ready every day? I would say she’s not yet. Because you want your head, your heart, and your guts all integrated. That’s when you’re playing your best. And I don’t think she does that in a daily way enough yet.”
Judging from her two victories so far this week, it’s fair to say Stephens is all in. She fought off Dutch No. 8 seed Bertens in a 2hr 20min battle and has more chances than anyone else in her group to make it to Saturday’s semis.
“In the beginning of the third [set] she raised her level again. I think it was really close. It was just a few points, but, yeah, she was staying in there tough. Physically she was really well. So it was tough there today,” said Bertens of Stephens.
The White Group is also still undecided entering Thursday’s last round robin matches as defending champion Caroline Wozniacki takes on Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova faces fellow Czech Karolina Pliskova.
Petra Kvitova admits it’s a ‘weird’ feeling knowing her qualification fate is in the hands of others in her WTA Finals group after she suffered two opening defeats but is choosing to focus on the positives as she enters the closing stages of her season.
The Czech lefty followed up her loss to Elina Svitolina with a three-set defeat to Caroline Wozniacki in Singapore on Tuesday but still has a third match on Thursday, against her compatriot Karolina Pliskova. While Kvitova’s chances of qualifying for the semis are not huge (Kvitova must beat Pliskova in straight sets AND Svitolina must defeat Wozniacki), she hopes to go out there and give it her best shot/
Kvitova had a sensational first half of 2018, winning a tour-leading five titles, but she has lost five of her last six matches and confessed it’s been difficult finding the energy to finish the season strong.
“I think that in the second half of the season I have been a little bit tired from the first half,” said the two-time Wimbledon champion.
“I think I played great one in Cincinnati. Not bad in US Open. Just that match with [Aryna] Sabalenka was just difficult. The Asian swing, yeah, I was sick before, so I’m not sure how I should explain that. And of course this one is just really tough from the first match. Of course this hurts to have those two losses, but I can’t be too hard on myself to just be here after everything. So I just need to think positively, which is pretty hard right now, but, yeah, I should.”
Looking beyond this tournament and ahead to 2019, Kvitova concedes that she will need to resort to more meticulous scheduling in order to avoid late-season burnout.
“Definitely I need to have a good off-season as I had last year. And I think that we will do a little bit better scheduling of the tournaments not to get this many, well, it’s great to have so many matches, but in the other hand, it’s just taking me some energy. So I think we just need to find a balance of playing those tournaments,” she explained.
Kvitova was talking while Svitolina was halfway through her three-set win over Pliskova. Had Pliskova won that clash, Kvitova would have already been eliminated from the competition, deeming their upcoming match on Thursday a dead rubber.
“I feel weird, to be honest. I don’t know what will happen or not, but I still do have one more match, anyway. I do have Fed Cup finals, so still the season is not over yet,” added Kvitova. “I don’t know. I will wait how everything will go. I will go, for sure, for the next one and will do everything what I can, anyway.”
Kvitova leads Pliskova 3-0 head-to-head and the former is working with the latter’s ex-coach Jiri Vanek, who switched sides at the end of 2016.
“I think for them it’s going to be tough match, and every one of them, they try to do the best and try to beat the other one,” said Vanek of their upcoming showdown in Singapore.
“It’s going to be big fight. It’s tough to say for me, because I have coached Karolina before. Always, you know, the eyes between us, sometimes looks like she’s not that happy maybe that I change from her to Petra, but that’s the life.”
Pliskova, currently coached by Rennae Stubbs, has taken just one set off of Kvitova in three previous meetings but she’s hoping she can turn things around this time. She has faced two counter-punchers so far this week in Singapore, Wozniacki and Svitolina, and knows she’ll be taking on a far more aggressive player on Thursday.
“It’s gonna be completely different match, for sure, than those two. We played this year once [Petra and I]. Always when I played her she won the tournament, so maybe this time it’s gonna be different,” Pliskova said with a smile.
Wozniacki, who lost her opener to Karolina Pliskova on day one of the tournament on Sunday, overcame a left knee problem that bothered her in the second set against Kvitova to claim a sixth win in 14 clashes versus the Czech world No. 5.
The Dane’s triumph improves her chances of qualifying to the semi-finals, and left Kvitova hanging in the balance.
Kvitova is the only player with a positive head-to-head record against all of her fellow group members but it amounted to little so far this week, as she suffered defeats in both her meetings with Svitolina and Wozniacki. The Czech has now lost five of her last six matches on tour.
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) October 23, 2018
In her showdown with Wozniacki on Tuesday, it was the former world No. 1 who drew first blood. Wozniacki converted her first break point of the tournament on her 12th opportunity. She was 0/10 in her opening match against Pliskova and missed one earlier in the first set against Kvitova. But the Australian Open champion found the winner to break in the eighth game and lead 5-3.
Kvitova got her hands on a break point the very next game, thanks to some punishing backhands, and she got the break back on a long ball from her opponent. They were soon on level terms at 5-all.
Wozniacki staved off Kvitova’s assault in the following game to complete a gutsy service hold. Kvitova’s error count kept moving in the wrong direction and she quickly found herself facing set points in game 12. Wozniacki converted on her second of the game, and third of the set to take a commanding lead over the Czech lefty.
The second set began with three consecutive breaks before Kvitova finally consolidated for a 3-1 lead. Wozniacki called the trainer and received treatment on her left knee. Following a six-minute interruption, Wozniacki returned to the court and won the next two games to even up the set to 3-all.
A fifth service break of the set came in the next game as Kvitova once again took the initiative. Wozniacki saved two set points but Kvitova closed the deal on her third opportunity, slicing her way to a hold and forcing a decider.
Gets the victory over Kvitova 7-5, 3-6, 6-2! pic.twitter.com/DiZK1G165q
— WTA (@WTA) October 23, 2018
Wozniacki made the first move in the final set and held for 2-0. In uncharacteristic fashion, Kvitova threw her racquet in frustration in the next game as she attempted to hold serve. The two-time Wimbledon champion looked spent and her opponent capitalised on that and was soon up a double-break and serving at 4-1.
She took the next two games to secure the win leaving Kvitova on the edge of elimination.
A win for Pliskova against Svitolina in the second match of the evening would end Kvitova’s chances of advancing to the semis.