By Ros Satar, in Singapore
- Bonding, court speeds and the dash to the finish line were just three of the things we learned in talking to the final eight players at this year’s WTA Finals.
SINGAPORE – After all the glitz and glamour of the Draw Gala on Friday, thoughts turn to the final running of the season ending championships in Singapore.
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With newly crowned Slam champions this year, there seems to be a quiet changing of the guard as Singapore prepares to bid farewell to its guardianship of the WTA Finals in some style.
For almost all players this is the end of the season, save for those on Fed Cup final duty afterwards. For the rest, it is one last push of the season, and with that – here are the five things we learned from the All-Access day.
The uniqueness of season-ending finales is the round robin format. After spending a year getting used to packing your bags and setting off to the next tournament after a loss, here an ‘L’ may not necessarily be your ticket out of Singapore.
Famously in 2015, Angelique Kerber found herself in the situation of just having to win one set to advance past the group stages, and knowing that crippled her. The following year, having book-ended 2016 with Slam titles, she returned a little older and wiser.
“It is completely different to the normal tournaments, of course. But I think that I’m also having a lot of experience about this. I mean, you can win one match and you can be still playing the semis.
“So, you have to be focusing on every single point and game and set, because it can be important at the end of the groups. But I think it’s great to have something different, because you are here, you play a minimum of three matches. You have three really tough matches to go for it.”
“Also, mentally, you know it’s the last tournament. So, you are trying to pushing yourself until the limits, taking all the energy that’s left for every single match.”
Naomi Osaka makes her debut in the senior competition, having come through the Rising Stars event a few years earlier. She told reporters:
“I just remember the Rising Stars event being my first big tournament sort of, like I have never played on a Centre Court that big before. So definitely it’s always in my memories.
“I’m not really used to round robins. But I also think it’s a really good thing, because if you happen to lose a match, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re out of the tournament.
“You have other matches you can play, and you can continue to learn from the last match you have played. In this way, I think to make one tournament like this, it’s very exciting. I kind of want to see what happens.”
Another debutante here, Sloane Stephens has at least played them before – but not for a while, as she explained:
“I haven’t played a round robin since I started playing tennis at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club, and you had to play the round robin to advance in your ladder. Yeah, I was, like, ten. So, I’m really not sure how it works. I saw the chart and everything. But I think you just play and try to win and whatever happens happens.”
In the past the tournament has been criticised by players and pundits alike for being too slow, but this year could herald a change from its previous glue-like incarnations. Some players (notably those who prefer the faster conditions) were quick to latch on to the fact it might be speedier, but others were not so sure.
Since the tournament moved to Singapore in 2014, Petra Kvitova (who won in 2011 when it was hosted in Turkey) has seen a difference in the speed.
“From my perspective, I feel it’s a bit fast than the previous years. It depends on the ball, how it’s bouncing, if it’s like with a spin or no. But like overall I think that what I remember even from Istanbul and here, the court was a little bit slower but not this time, which is better (smiling). I like it more, yeah.”
Fellow Czech, Karolina Pliskova added:
“This year it feels different, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m too slow, but the court feels a little bit faster than last year. Also maybe, I’m not sure, but of my traveling and of the tournaments what I played, I just didn’t get that much time to get used to it but just felt it’s a little bit faster.
“Maybe Moscow was too slow for me somehow. Maybe compared to Moscow it’s just fast. But I felt okay in those practices. I just had two so it’s not much. I felt okay. I didn’t feel that slow.”
Not everyone can tell the difference though. It had been a tough round robin experience for Elina Svitolina on her debut last year, and maybe that whole process had become a blur.
“I kind of forgot already what was the feeling last year. But it seems a little bit slow, but last year it was same, I think. But it’s tough to say now. Maybe my memory lies (smiling).”
Another one to add to the ‘I can’t remember’ bucket is surprisingly defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.
“They said that it’s a tiny bit faster than last year. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t really remember, to be honest. I like it. I enjoy the surface. I enjoy the court. I enjoy
the challenge of playing against the best players.”
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Big wins and consistency
As you would expect, the Slam winners are front and centre at this year’s tournament and were it not for a back injury that has maligned World No. 1 Simona Halep’s end to the season, we would have had a full collection of major winners.
Big props are due to the World No. 1. Halep collects the coveted year-end top spot for the second year on the trot, having made (and fallen) at her third Slam before finally getting over the line at the French Open.
She said: “I still feel sad that I cannot compete here. But with injuries, you cannot play or you cannot fight. So it was the best decision for me, for my health. I don’t regret it, even if I am very sad.
“This tournament I think for everybody is important, because you play with the best eight players in the world. It means that you had a good year, a great year, qualify for this event. For me, actually still means a lot, because I qualified five times in a row. It’s a special event. Hopefully next year I can qualify again.
“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.”
But it is not just the big titles that guarantee a spot here. Two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova may have struggled to make an impact at the Slams, but her run to a tour-leading tally of five titles as well as bagging the season’s longest winning streak put her well in contention here.
Kvitova elaborated: “I think it’s one of the special season I ever had with my career. I’m very proud of it, actually, which is weird. I never said it. Yeah, we’ll see how everything end up here, but the season is great, anyway.”
Bonding with the rest of the Top Eight
Of course, the top players are used to meeting each other deep in the biggest tournaments around the world, but over the years the iconic photo-shoots and obligatory selfies have become as much a part of the occasion.
Kerber was in charge of the selfie-stick and said: “We are doing a lot of things together here, like yesterday, and it is a little bit more relaxed because we know we will play against each other three matches. We know how it works here.
“Everybody who is here deserved it, and they played really consistent, great 2018. So, I think that everybody is really proud and happy to staying here, playing here. Yeah, I think it’s just a little bit more relaxed than during the tournaments.”
Kvitova added: “It’s something totally different. We were doing the selfie with the selfie stick, so much fun with that. It’s something really different that we have to work like a team for a while, in this kind of events.
“And of course, then we’re gonna stand against each other the next day. But in this kind of situation, I really enjoy that. We had a good talk with the girls, as well.”
Two of the tournament’s debutantes will go head to head in their first-round robin matches, and Osaka explained what it was like to chill with Stephens, ahead of their first match on Monday.
“I’m really excited to play against her. I didn’t know this, I kind of forgot, but I have played her in a match in Acapulco. So yeah, I mean, she’s a Grand Slam champion. She’s really amazing.
“Actually, during the entire, like, gala and photo session we had yesterday, she was really nice. I just feel like since it’s both our first time here, I don’t know. We both want to do well, so I think the match that we play is going to be very good.”
Stephens added: “It’s definitely fun, a lot of pictures, a lot of group activities together. It’s a tournament of eight players, so this is the only time of the year that this happens for us. I think at a Grand Slam, there is a lot of faces you don’t know, a lot of qualifiers, people you have never even seen before.
“So, I think that’s what kind of makes a Grand Slam special. But then here obviously special, seven other girls that you know pretty well that you see frequently throughout the year. Yeah, it’s just fun to be here with them and kind of, I guess you could say, bond a little bit better.”
Race to the finish
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of grabbing a Slam title en route to booking their spot in Singapore. For some, there is the Asian and European scramble over the finish line – which in itself can be an ordeal.
Stephens, Svitolina, Pliskova and Kiki Bertens hauled themselves over the finish line by the end of an eventful final tournament in Moscow.
Svitolina said: “It was until the last moment almost we didn’t know. But, you know, I was just trying to really don’t think so much about it.
“Of course, it was in my mind, but, you know, I was preparing to play in Zhuhai, actually (smiling). Because, you know, I would be more sad if I would be preparing to play here and then not got in. That’s why I was, like, okay, I’m going to play in Zhuhai, you know.”
Stephens did not have high hopes of making the dash to the finish in Asia, as previously this had never been the best location for her.
“Obviously I haven’t had great results in Asia. So I just really wanted to make the most of it this season. I started off not too great. But by the time I got to Beijing, I’m like, I’m not playing badly. I just need to win a match, like I need to figure it out. I think winning those two matches were very good for me, because I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.
“Obviously I wanted to make it here. Everyone wanted to make it here. So everyone was kind of tense and there was a lot of, you know, unwanted and unnecessary stress. So I think to win those two matches was big, because I kind of had to fight my way through. I was happy with that.”
Pliskova’s safety came (initially) with Berten’s defeat after her own early exit in Moscow.
“It was tough week, for sure. Not only week but for sure tough month for me. A lot of traveling, a lot of tournaments. A lot of matches, which I appreciate, but the last two weeks were pretty tough by playing Tianjin till the final, and then after the match quickly I took the plane to Moscow.
“It was not an easy trip. And I just had a day there, not really a good day (smiling). And then I was lucky to move that day, same day where I lost here. So just a lot of traveling. But I feel better today. So, I think on one hand it was a little bit stressful, but on the other hand I was able to find best tennis in the end of the year.”
If we are talking last gasp, then the award goes to Bertens whose frustration at being knocked out of Moscow in her opener was evident. Her exit sealed spots for Svitolina and Pliskova, but as expected Halep’s withdrawal ensured that Bertens would make the cut.
“It was really great, like, first to get the call that I got in here, because it was a kind of a weird feeling losing in Moscow and not be able to play here, but then I am. So, I’m really happy with that. I had a good arrive here. Yesterday was also a great night.
“I think after my loss in Moscow I felt really disappointed not making it. Of course, you’re sad afterwards, but you know there is still a chance. But on the way to the airport I got the call. I had some emotions there, yes.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit mixed but it’s been really good, and I’m really enjoying my time here. I had to come here anyway because I was the first alternate, so I was going to come anyways. But it was a better feeling to be on the flight sitting there like knowing that I had to play a few days after than maybe sitting here all week and not playing. So, yeah, that was a good feeling.”
The BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore begins on 21 October with Kvitova & Svitolina, at 5pm (10am BST).
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