By Ros Satar, at the Sheseido WTA Finals, Shenzhen
Three newbies, two former champions, one finalist, but will experience win out over debutantes’ exuberance?
SHENZHEN, CHINA – With the changing faces of Slam champions, are we set for a changing of the guard?
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Voices of Experience
For many who have spent their years watching tennis in the age of the dominance of the Williams sisters, just a couple of years ago, we started to see a changing of the guard in the season-ending line-ups.
There were a few wry smiles when the apparent grand-dame of tennis Petra Kvitova admitted that she was coming into this line-up as the oldest competitor. Even with two Wimbledon titles to her name, it was her run to the Australian Open final that helped her get a great start to the race.
Kvitova said: “I just realised yesterday that I’m the oldest one of them, which feels pretty weird (smiling). But I going to take it. We spoke with Simona [Halep], she’s just one year younger. We made some fun of it.
“But we’ll see. There are for the first time, not Naomi, but those are here for the first time, not the last time probably. We going to see them often, I think. The new faces are coming. It’s normal that the generation is just changing.
“Not sure if the experience it’s better or no. Of course, I mean, I probably had everything what’s coming with the WTA Finals. I had to pull out once. I won it once. I been in the final, whatever happened.
“It’s something every final is just different. Being just in the top eight, that’s makes the differences. But, I mean, I won it like my first Final without any experience. I’m not sure if it’s about that.”
Maybe it is the magic of Wimbledon that is a factor. Halep was perhaps the biggest surprise winner of a Slam this year, playing the match of her life to stun Serena Williams to lift her first Wimbledon title – although to be fair she was more bothered about the membership of the All England club.
She said: “I am the second oldest here, so… It feels weird a little bit. But, yeah, we have very young players in this tournament. It’s amazing that they already won Grand Slam. It’s a fantastic job. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, the ‘olders’.
“But, you know, tennis is growing up, tennis is going ahead, so we have to adjust ourselves to everything that’s new.
“I don’t feel that I am different generation. I feel that the game is similar, even if they are playing a little bit stronger now. Also, Petra is playing strong. Everybody from my age is hitting the ball strong. It’s not my style, but I face them already. I don’t believe is different generation. Actually, we need new faces and we need young players to come.”
It is not uncommon for newcomers to the format to embrace it and run with it. Kvitova won the WTA Finals on her debut, Halep reached the final. Others have been less successful. Defending champion Elina Svitolina seemed hate her experience in the first year, and then backed that up with the title last year.
Also filed in the ‘miserable opening campaign’ bucket was Naomi Osaka, who lost each round-robin round, actually retiring from her final match. This time around, she comes in on a 10-match winning streak, picking up titles in Osaka and Beijing on the bounce. It might be the end of a long season, but there is a sense that this time around, Osaka is a little more primed.
Osaka said: “I think last year the end of the year was just so hectic for me, and I didn’t really remember anything. Honestly, by the time I got here, I was just so tired. Of course, I’m a little bit tired this year, too (smiling), but for different reasons.
“I managed to win Osaka and Beijing. I hope that I can continue that going forward. I definitely think last year helped me in the way that I kind of know the format more. Before last year, I haven’t played round-robin since I was, like, eight or ten.”
As it happens we have a mouth-watering opening match on Sunday – an Australian Open final rematch between Osaka and Kvitova and with a court that by all
She continued: “I just think it’s going to be hard because I only have the Australian Open to sort of think about in regard to playing her again. This court is a bit slow, but it’s also indoors. I’m very concerned how her serve is going to treat me tomorrow (smiling).
“I think it should be fun. I think she’s one of the players, few players, that sort of treat you very nicely after the match no matter if she wins or loses. She always gives you a smile. For me, I think that’s, like, one of the best things about a person, is they kind of course want to kill you on the court, but sort of like off the court they’re very nice. Yeah, I’m sort of rambling on that a little bit, but I feel like the match tomorrow is going to be very difficult.”
Although World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty has played the WTA Finals in doubles, there is a very different vibe to be felt in the Singles. Winning Roland Garros, she has perhaps dealt with the pressures of being a new Slam champion and World No. 1 the best of most recent Slam champions, perhaps with the exception of Simona Halep.
She said: “It’s very special being here in singles, having had a bit of a taste it in the doubles the last two years. It was really nice. I think the goal for all singles players is to make the Finals at the end of the year, to be playing against the best of the best to test yourself against the best. Really excited to have an opportunity now after a fantastic year to try and finish really well.
“Obviously it’s a little bit different to what we play throughout the rest of the year. But also in a sense, it’s a great opportunity that if you do lose your first or your second match, you’ve got an opportunity in the coming days to try to rectify that, try and finish your season well.”
Bridging the Gap
While another of the newcomers, and just 22 years of age, it is easy to label Belinda Bencic as a veteran. Having made her WTA tour level debut as a young teen, she has seemingly been around forever, despite having to fight her way back into the higher echelons of the rankings having slipped out of the Top 300 in 2017 after undergoing left wrist surgery and closing out that season winning 28 out of 31 matches.
The race was on, all the way down the line with Bencic’s win in Moscow reminiscent of Svetlana Kuznetsova’s last ditch run to qualify in 2016.
She recalled: “I think it’s the most excited I’ve ever been for a match celebration. No, I mean, it’s just my real feelings. I was just so relieved, like, the moment I converted the match point and realised I made it to here last minute possible. Yeah, at some point it has become a big goal for me.
“I tried to qualify in China and Linz. It didn’t go well. Then I kind of stopped believing in it. I thought I would be in Zhuhai. I just took my last chance in Moscow. Somehow it paid off. I’m super happy. I think Kuznetsova was my idol on this.”
What has sometimes tripped up new-comers is the concept of the round-robin matches, but under Hopman Cup (and alongside Roger Federer, which always helps), Bencic has at least played round-robin before.
She said: “I was thinking about that earlier. Normally we tennis players are not used to this. You lose, you’re so sad and you fly away (laughter). Now you can lose, but you can still maybe potentially win or advance to the semi-final. I think that’s pretty special. I think only in Hopman Cup I had this form of the round-robin.”
She might not have a Slam to her name like Barty, Osaka or the latest winner in the block, Bianca Andreescu and in effect could be seen as bridging the gap between the debutantes and the ‘older generation’.
She joked: “I’m clearly the old (smiling). I’m 22 years old, I’m a veteran. I mean, we are also discussing this yesterday with Petra. She made also this funny comment. Yeah, you’re like here forever. You kind of, like, are. She was making fun she was the oldest player, then Simona, also Pliskova, she’s not that old but she’s already veteran.
“I feel like the average has definitely come down with younger players. I definitely feel that’s because the tour is changing, like everyone is fighting to take the lead. The older players are, like, slowly retiring and just everything is changing. I think that’s pretty natural.
“Maybe in some years there will be, again, clearly someone dominating or not. We don’t know. I think everyone wants to take this spot of being the top girls that are leading the tour.
“For me, I don’t know, I feel like I’m here long time, but still I don’t feel like I’m one of the older players. I still feel like I have a lot of time. Maybe it’s good I’m one of the younger ones but with more experience.”
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And thus all eyes turn to Andreescu – maybe one of the most confident players of a generation. And old soul in a 19-year-old’s body. She may not have played much this year, but when she has, she has made an impact. Starting the year with the final in Auckland, winning Indian Wells, Toronto and the small matter of winning her first Slam at the US Open, she is the epitome of self-belief.
She continues to shrug it off: “There’s definitely pressure, for sure. I always say whether the pressure you put on yourself or the pressure from everyone else, but there’s always going to be pressure.
“I found that I deal pretty well under pressure. Don’t ask me how. I think my game just elevates to another level unconsciously, which I’m really grateful for. I think that’s why I play my best against the top players. That was more when I was an underdog, so let’s see how it is now.”
We started this piece with the oldest competitor in the field, and we close it with the baby of the group – but arguably one of the favourites.
Andreescu continued: “I think age is just a number. I think anyone can accomplish anything at any age if they really want it. I think I proved that. Petra proved that. Serena proved that.
“I think right now I don’t have much pressure on my shoulders going into this tournament. It’s my first WTA Finals. I know I’m coming off a really good year this year, but I’m just going to go out there like any other tournament. I know it’s the biggest tournament of my life, but I’m not going to keep saying that to myself. Just go out there and play like it’s anything else.”
The Shiseido WTA Finals start on Sunday with Osaka v Kvitova, followed by Barty v Bencic, started at 4:30pm (8:30am GMT).
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