When Karolina Pliskova won the first set 6-0 in 20 minutes against Simona Halep at the WTA Finals, few could have envisaged the drama that was to come.
Remarkably, it was Halep who seemed destined to progress to the semifinals at the year-end championships before Pliskova rallied, buckled but finally sealed the Purple Group encounter with a 6-0 2-6 6-4 victory Friday.
It was rollercoaster stuff in Shenzhen, China. After the towering, big-serving Pliskova won the first six games, the counter-punching Wimbledon champion took eight of the ensuing 10 for a 2-0 30-0 advantage in the third.
Yet in what was the likely turning point, Halep let Pliskova off the hook in that third game of the decider.
Pliskova — who sports tattoos like her tennis playing twin sister — hung on to start a five-game winning streak and it was ultimately enough to reach a third semifinal at the WTA Finals. Lady luck smiled on Pliskova on the last point, her swinging volley at 30-40 on the Halep serve turning into a net-cord winner.
Halep’s influential coach Darren Cahill wasn’t smiling. The Australian let his charge know he wasn’t happy with her effort as Pliskova stormed back in the third.
“The last three games you’ve been an absolute disgrace on the court,” Cahill told Halep during a coaching visit on court, as recounted by the WTA. “Give yourself a chance by pulling back in. This is on you. Get your attitude back on track and you will win this match. I have full belief. How are you going to define yourself as an athlete and competitor? This isn’t even about the result anymore.”
Halep suggested on the eve of the year-end championships that simply playing was job done, since she was experiencing issues with her back, the same back that forced her to skip the eight-woman showpiece 12 months ago.
But the defeat will sting, especially after the Romanian saved a match point against US Open champion Bianca Andreescu earlier in the week to get herself into position to qualify for the last four.
Svitolina still perfect
Defending champion Elina Svitolina had already progressed from the group and stayed perfect by topping second alternate Sofia Kenin, who had no chance of advancing due to playing in only the one match. Kenin came in for the injured Andreescu, days after first alternate Kiki Bertens filled in for the ailing Naomi Osaka.
But it was far from a light exhibition. Kenin’s intensity — and punishing baseline game — matches the recently retired Spaniard David Ferrer, while Svitolina was intent on keeping up her winning ways.
She did so with a 7-5 7-6 (12-10) win in more than two hours and is the only player still in with a chance of finishing undefeated and thus picking up the maximum prize money check of $4.725 million.
“Each time I step on the court I have to win,” Svitolina said, as reported by the WTA. “My parents raised me this way, that I have to fight for everything, I have to give 100 percent each time I play. They would be very angry if I would just give this match to her.
“And my grandmother, as well — she would be very sad.”
The Ukrainian counter puncher had to rally in both sets, coming back from 5-3 in the first and a break down at 5-4 in the second. Kenin even held a set point in that 10th game, only to strike a double fault.
Svitolina then contested her second epic tiebreak of the week, seeing off the American 12-10 after winning the longest tiebreak in tournament history, 14-12, against Pliskova. Just like in that tiebreak against the Czech, Svitolina held the majority of set points and only faced one set point herself.
The set points Kenin faced in the tiebreak were also match points and she finally succumbed on the sixth one by netting a forehand.
On Saturday, Svitolina plays US Open semifinalist Belinda Bencic in the last four, while Pliskova meets world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.