Elina Svitolina credits a “mysterious man” for her shift in mentality that helped her enjoy success this week in Singapore, where she has won all three of her round robin matches to qualify for the semi-finals top of her group.
The Ukrainian No. 6 seed came back from a set and a break down to defeat Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday and secure her spot in the final four of the season-ending championships.
Her run at these WTA Finals comes on the heels of a difficult six months for Svitolina, who admits it was a struggle dealing with her sub-par results from the French Open onwards, as well as the constant scrutiny regarding her dramatic weight loss during the spring.
She parted ways with her French coach Thierry Ascione after the US Open and had a very brief trial with Nick Saviano.
“For me, going into this tournament was very important mentally to bounce back, and, you know, I had really, really tough second part of the season. I was actually — I was actually surprised, because I was very positive and I just keep fighting,” said the 24-year-old.
“I stopped with my coach, with Thierry, and it was not easy. With all the things going on social media, with the opinions about my physique, it wasn’t easy.
“So this really shows, and I think I’m getting mentally tough. That’s what I have been working on really hard. Yeah, definitely Andy [Bettles, my traveling coach] helps me a lot, and it’s something that really I appreciate it.”
Svitolina, who is the first Ukrainian to qualify for the WTA Finals in singles, won three titles in the first five months of the season, in Brisbane, Dubai and Rome, but things changed for her after she made a surprise third round exit to Mihaela Buzarnescu at the French Open.
“The period of six months I think after my bad performance at Roland Garros and then continued few tournaments that I didn’t play my best tennis I think made me stronger. I just decided what I have to do on court, off court, and that’s more clear now,” she says.
“It’s tough to spot few things, but I have been working with Andy, and it’s like one more person that helps me, I had a conversation with. So I’m not going to say who’s that. Keep it to a mysterious man who made it clear what I have to do, and it a little bit opened my mind. So I’m really thankful for that man,” she added with a smile.
Svitolina needed to win just one set from her match with Wozniacki on Thursday to reach the semis but things weren’t looking up for her when she trailed the Dane by a set and a break. Svitolina somehow turned things around and secured the second set on her fifth opportunity in a tense final game.
Asked what lessons she feels she learned from the last six months, Svitolina said: “By knowing that I have to look only on my path and to don’t — you know, there is a thousand opinions, million opinions. I just have to do my job and go on court. I’m trying to win every point. I’m not giving any free points. Just want to continue that way.
“It definitely made me stronger in, you know, those tough moments. And now I’m just enjoying this success. The job is not done yet, but, you know, these three matches that I had, they have been really tough. Today I saw, you know, this challenge. I’m really, really happy the way I could handle it.”
Pliskova was 0-3 against Kvitova entering Thursday’s clash, and had extra incentive to defeat her Fed Cup team-mate, admitting there has been tense history between them.
While the full extent of the issues was never revealed, Czech coach Jiri Vanek told reporters in Singapore that Pliskova was not too pleased when he left her team to join Kvitova’s at the end of 2016.
Pliskova had taken just one set off of Kvitova in their three previous meetings but on Thursday, she was determined to change that. The No. 7 needed 82 minutes to defeat Kvitova 6-3, 6-4 and post a tour-leading 49th victory of the 2018 season.
“It was a huge victory for me. I’m not going to say [it wasn’t], because I never beat her, and there is some past between us that I just was fighting for this victory a lot,” said Pliskova after the match.
“So it means a lot, and for sure, to get it to go to semi-finals after beating her, it’s just special. But obviously after the first set, I didn’t know that she cannot make the semis anymore, but it was more about me.
“I just know like, look, I have set, I know I’m pretty good playing three-setters this year, so I just believed I can win this match by having the first set done. I felt pretty confident actually out there. Yeah, pretty happy about my performance.”
Kvitova had won 27 of her last 28 matches against Czech players, with that sole defeat coming against Pliskova’s sister Kristyna in Charleston earlier this year.
“I already saw my messages from my parents, and they said they are very happy that we both beat her,” added Pliskova.
This season was always going to end with a smile on my face. No matter what. Was it a perfect week? No. Was it an incredible season? Yes. See you at the Fed Cup Final ❤️💪 pic.twitter.com/fSC54lQxOl
— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) October 25, 2018
Kvitova ends her WTA season on a five-match losing streak – she hadn’t lost five in a row since 2010 – but still has plenty to be proud of, wrapping up a year in which she won five titles and returned to the top-five in the rankings. She still has the Fed Cup final coming up in Prague, where the Czech take on USA.
“This season was always going to end with a smile on my face. No matter what. Was it a perfect week? No. Was it an incredible season? Yes. See you at the Fed Cup Final,” tweeted Kvitova.
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.