SHENZHEN, CHINA – Defending champion Elina Svitolina was tested for the first time, but prevailed to face World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.
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Elina Svitolina  def. Belinda Bencic  5-7, 6-3, 4-1 RET
The emotional roller-coaster that can sometimes accompany a Belinda Bencic match was in full effect as first the Swiss took the first set off defending champion Elina Svitolina, before struggling with a hamstring injury and cramp, which ultimately saw her retire in the deciding set.
Up until that point, Bencic had been causing Svitolina all kinds of grief, with a game plan to try and disrupt Svitolina’s game, but after the cramp started, Svitolina found herself creeping back into the match despite losing the first set.
Her break at either end of set 2, while Bencic was becoming more and more distressed with her conditioning restored a lot of the defending champion’s courage. She jumped out to a 3-0 lead and although Bencic was able to get one game on the board, she pulled the plug at 1-4 down.
After the match, Bencic said: “I was cramping. I started to feel it at the start of the second set, my hamstring. I called the physio. I started cramping in my foot and again in my hamstring.
“I really didn’t want to retire. I wanted to finish the match. It was not possible. I’m really disappointed about how my body failed me. Also, I think these courts are really not ideal. You can see there was four retirements this week, yeah.”
Svitolina described the challenges of playing an injured player, as she hunts down her first title of the year.
“[To] stay into the match, it was tough. When someone injured, tries to go for more. Actually she was hitting the ball very good from the place. I had to try to move her. This was not easy because it’s tough to find a balance when you have to really hit the ball, then when you have to try to direct the ball well.
“She was going for it. Sometimes, of course, she was missing a lot. Sometimes she was hitting amazing shots. That’s the challenge, what you have to be aware of.”
The second semi-final also went the distance, with the top seeds doing battle. Ashleigh Barty had to come from a set down from an inspired Karolina Pliskova who was attempting to make the final for the third time in a row – and was denied once more.
At the start of the match it looked as though it would be plain sailing for the Czech, who started by putting Barty under immediate pressure, forcing her to save three break points in her first service game, and another two in the next before the Czech got her breakthrough for a lead in the first set, After that Barty seemed to settle and even had a chance to break back as Pliskova was serving for the set, but could not convert on her one chance.
It could have been one-way traffic for Plsikova as she had four chances to break for a ead before the first changeover in the second set but was staved off by Barty, who needed just the one chance to take the lead, and sealed the deal with a break at the end of the set to take it into a decider.
Things were tight in the third set with just one break point on offer, with Barty taking advantage, although she would need three match points to reach the second biggest final of her career.
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The World No. 1 and now the new year-end No. 1 Barty will have to play the match of her life to finally get a win over Svitolina. For the most part, their match-ups have been pretty one-sided in Svitolina’s favour except for their first Fed Cup match, and their most recent counter at Indian Wells this year.
However much has been made about the court speed, and certainly Svitolina has coped the best with the speed. Elements of the weird bounces was causing a vexed Barty to vent at a an on-court coaching session with Craig Tyzzer about the unpredictable bounces, but she did find a way to combat that in the semi-final.
With only one straight sets match under her belt, she will have the more tired legs, with Svitolina having only dropped one set on the way to the final.
Barty will have to rely on the variety she can bring and try and shake Svitolina off the baseline. She has that capability but Svitolina’s ability to run everything down will make it a challenge. However, we are left with the two of the fittest players on tour, and certainly it was survival of the fittest at this tournament, with four retirements or withdrawals in total.
Svitolina has to go into this as the favourite – the court suits her, and she is motivated to grab this as her only piece of silverware and also the generous paycheque that will go with it.
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