Sloane Stephens continues to make a statement on her WTA Finals debut as she wrapped up her round robin matches with a clean 3-0 record, defeating top seed Angelique Kerber on Friday to advance to the semis as the winner of her group.
Stephens staved off a Kerber comeback in the second set to topple the German Wimbledon champion 6-3, 6-3 in 1hr 40min.
The No. 5 seed faces Karolina Pliskova in Saturday’s semi-finals, while Kiki Bertens, who beat Naomi Osaka via retirement earlier in the day, faces Elina Svitolina.
Here are four things to know ahead of Saturday’s showdowns.
GOOD WEEK FOR THE UNDERDOGS
In a field of eight, it is the bottom four seeds who ended up advancing to the semi-finals here in Singapore.
Stephens and Svitolina both went 3-0 in the group stage while Bertens and Pliskova produced some impressive tennis to post 2-1 records.
“I think obviously the girls that were the bottom four, so me, Svitolina, Bertens, and Pliskova, I think we have all had great seasons and had some really great results. I think that obviously the top four have, too, but I think at the end, like when we were all battling towards the end of the year, everyone pretty much counted us out, because they were, like, ‘Oh, they are barely going to qualify or barely get in’. I think that everyone came here with not nothing to lose but ready to kind of kick ass,” said Stephens.
“I think we have all played, the four of us in our groups, I think we have all played really well, like even though when I played Kiki, that was probably the best match I played in the group. So, yeah, I think it’s great for us, great for the younger girls just to be able to prove ourselves and even get this far and get here. Yeah, it’s kind of cool.”
This is the first time since 2003, when the round robin format was re-introduced, that none of the top four seeds have advanced to the final four at the WTA Finals.
ACE QUEEN ON TARGET
Pliskova is seven aces away from hitting the 400-mark for the season. It would be the fifth year in a row that Pliskova fires 400 or more aces. The Czech is also bidding for a tour-leading 50th victory of the season when she takes on Stephens on Saturday. It would be the third time in her career to tally up 50 wins in a season, after posting 53 victories in 2015 and 2017.
Two WTA Finals debutantes have made it to the semis this week – Stephens and Bertens. It’s the first time this has happened since Ana Ivanovic and Anna Chakvetadze made the final four in 2007. Stephens is the first time a debutante to win all her group matches since Garbine Muguruza achieved that feat in 2015.
KIKI THE GIANT-SLAYER
Bertens has now posted 12 top-10 victories this season (has lost six), the most of anyone on tour in 2018.
“I think it’s just like proof to myself that I can beat anyone. I think that’s a really nice feeling. I think before I really had like, oh, those are great players, and I can never beat them. Now I’m still thinking those are great players but I have beaten them before, so I can do it, so hopefully I can do it again today. So I think it helped me a lot with the confidence,” said the Dutchwoman of her impressive record.
Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki has revealed she has been suffering with rheumatoid arthritis for the last few months.
Wozniacki, who won the Australian Open in January, was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease prior to the US Open this summer, but has been able to play through it.
The Dane’s 2018 season came to an end as she was knocked out of the WTA Finals at the group stage after a defeat to Elina Svitolina and she will now use the off-season to plan how to manage the illness, which causes swelling of the joints and fatigue.
She told a press conference: “In the beginning it was a shock. Just you feel like you’re the fittest athlete out there, or that’s in my head, that’s what I’m known for, and all of a sudden you have this to work with.
“It’s obviously not ideal for anybody and I think when you’re a professional athlete, it’s also not even more ideal. But you find a plan, figure out what to do, you do your research, and thankfully there are great things now that you can do to it and do about it.
“You just kind of move on from it and work through it and figure out how to deal with it and live with it.
"After Wimbledon I wasn't feeling well, I thought it was just the flu. I was on vacation and I wasn't feeling good. I go to Washington, knees are hurting. I play in Montreal and something still doesn't feel right..."@CaroWozniacki talks about her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis pic.twitter.com/RFuNBJroZ7
"After Wimbledon I wasn't feeling well, I thought it was just the flu. I was on vacation and I wasn't feeling good. I go to Washington, knees are hurting. I play in Montreal and something still doesn't feel right..."@CaroWozniacki talks about her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis pic.twitter.com/RFuNBJroZ7— WTA (@WTA) October 25, 2018
“You learn how to just cope after matches. Some days you wake up and you can’t get out of bed and you just have to know that’s how it is, but other days you live and you’re fine. You don’t even feel like you have it.
“It’s something that now I’m happy that I’m done with the season and you can just kind of control it a little bit more and figure out a plan how to control it even better in the future.
“Some people can go into remission and some people it just stops, the disease, and it’s just right there and it’s not going to get worse, or if it does, it’s slowly.
“The medicine now is so amazing so I’m not worried about it. So that’s great. You just have to be aware.”
Wozniacki did suffer a drop in results after her diagnosis, until bouncing back in style, winning the China Open in Beijing earlier this month.
Naomi Osaka confessed it felt “depressing” not being able to summon her best form on her WTA Finals debut this week but her coach Sascha Bajin insists the team is still hopeful she can make the semis, despite losing both her group matches so far.
It’s been a wild season for Osaka and her camp, especially the last two months – a period that saw her win her maiden Grand Slam at the US Open, and follow that up by reaching the final of her home tournament in Tokyo, and the semis in Beijing. She is seeded No. 3 in Singapore and has a must-win clash with Kiki Bertens on Friday.
A left hamstring injury seems to be bothering Osaka, although she wouldn’t discuss it during her press conference on Wednesday. Bajin maintains that they’re still “in it to win it”, knowing all four players in the Red Group can qualify for Saturday’s semis.
Sport360 caught up with Bajin in Singapore on Thursday, to discuss Osaka’s success this season, how she’s swatting away any pressure, and how they plan to keep her star rising next year.
When I spoke to Naomi in Beijing, she talked about how the memory of winning the US Open final is still a sad one, because of everything that unfolded that day. What have you been telling her to try and change that memory into a happy one?
It was really sad and to be honest we haven’t really spoken about it that much right after, she didn’t really want to speak about it and I respect that. Sometimes I’d slip or slide a little comment about the US Open, kind of trying to normalise the whole situation, and just make it look like any other tournament, but she wasn’t really too fond of it to speak.
Going back to Tokyo, we talked a little bit about how she felt pressure, or how not, she said she didn’t feel that much pressure, which was surprising to me. Mostly we just tried to focus on making sure she feels good on court, off court, keeping her happy, and making sure that we keep our daily routine. That kind of distracts you from where your mind could wander off and keeping her busy definitely helped as well, not to over-think stuff.
Naomi is a very smart girl, she figures a lot of things by herself, it wasn’t me so much going in and talking to her about you know, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, think like that’, no, she’s very good at that.
She told me that you’ve had a recent conversation with her, urging her to open up to you more…
When she says that maybe I want her to open up a little bit more because I’m the type of guy who always tries to help. So I had to learn a lot from Naomi that I have to trust my player as well a little bit more. But ultimately the more open you are and share your thoughts, which maybe because she’s a little bit more shy and young and hasn’t really learned to talk about, and it took me a long time to learn that as well in any relationship, not only with my player but with my mother, with my friends, with my girlfriend at the time, just to really open up and talk about feelings.
It’s very hard and you need to trust the other person. Trust doesn’t come overnight, I understand that. I can’t force it. Ultimately I hope that Naomi sees that I only have her best interest at heart and that I only wish her well. The more she talks about it, the more she opens up and shares her thoughts the more I can understand what I need to do in what situation.
Do you think it’s important for her to process everything that happened over the summer, and her US Open triumph, before she thinks about next season, so there aren’t any bottled up emotions?
I think slowly in the offseason it’ll settle in. Everything has been going so fast, she was 74 after Hobart and now she’s here in Singapore, not many people expected that, I don’t know who did. Having a Grand Slam title definitely changed her life. I believe that a couple of days off, slowly it’s going to sink in.
What was it like witnessing the reception she got in Japan after the US Open?
I went back home after the US Open for one night and then I flew to Tokyo. She came after me, she went to Tokyo and I went to Tachikawa. So I didn’t see the reception she got at the airport. I’m not too sad about that because I heard it was crazy. Like a bunch of photographers and she held a press conference with over 400 media outlets and stuff, which is ridiculous, but beautiful to see as well that one individual can spark such a hype and create this big wave through a whole nation and being part of it makes me feel very proud and blessed.
She says her form this week in Singapore has been “depressing”, any particular reason she can’t find her rhythm here?
I think she struggles a little bit with the surface, with the balls. It’s so different from any other hard court. The court is very slow, it doesn’t feed into her. But yesterday when she told me she’s so sad that she can’t find a way to win. And I told her that, and I don’t want to sound cocky by any means, all these girls that are here are great champions, but I told her yesterday, ‘You played at like 70 per cent, and you’re still able to compete and are on the verge of winning against these Grand Slam champions, No. 2 in the world and against all these great players, that’s a good problem to have’.
And then I reminded her about the first matches we had together, where the opponent wasn’t ranked this high, or had as big of a name and she was laughing about it and had a small smirk across her face. I tried to tell her and remind her how far she’s come and not to expect too much of herself and I know she’s trying really hard.
To me, the biggest thing I tried to teach her this year was not to rate her performance just upon the outcome of the match, that’s just a result, that’s just a scoreline. Everything you do before that is what you should rate. And I think slowly she’ll see that. She loses the first set, still comes back wins the second, is I a winning position in the third against Kerber is beautiful to see; where before I heard maybe she would have let the second set go. And we’re still in it to win it, there’s still a chance to go.
Have you been checking all the qualification scenarios for her?
I’m checking. I haven’t slept all night, I’m checking for her and everybody else I guess. That’s my job.
What are some specific things you’d like to see her improve moving forward, things you’ll work on during the offseason?
We’re going to work hard on first-serve percentage, that’s something she has to improve. And mostly just maybe coming in a little bit more, taking time away from shorter alls, making sure she steps in on those and then finding her way to the net once or twice, like she’s done yesterday with good success. So I want to encourage her to do that more, making sure she makes the right decisions on court, understanding when to play what ball.