Tennis: And then there were two

Elina Svitolina (above), defeated Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 in a 2hr 39min epic while Sloane Stephens overcame a first-set bagel to beat Karolina Pliskova 0-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Elina Svitolina (above), defeated Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 in a 2hr 39min epic while Sloane Stephens overcame a first-set bagel to beat Karolina Pliskova 0-6, 6-4, 6-1.ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN
Elina Svitolina, defeated Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 in a 2hr 39min epic while Sloane Stephens overcame a first-set bagel to beat Karolina Pliskova 0-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Elina Svitolina, defeated Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 in a 2hr 39min epic while Sloane Stephens overcame a first-set bagel to beat Karolina Pliskova 0-6, 6-4, 6-1.ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN

First-time finalists Svitolina, Stephens survive three-setters to vie for top prize

Elina Svitolina might be considered the underdog in today's battle for the WTA Finals crown as she has never defeated Sloane Stephens on a hard court. But head-to-head records have counted for little at this year's edition of the season finale.

As Stephens herself said yesterday after defeating Karolina Pliskova to reach the final of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global: "It doesn't matter what's happened in the past.

"Obviously this is a completely different surface, we are playing indoor hard (their two previous hard court meetings were played outdoors).

"It's completely different and there is a lot on the line. We are just going to both go out and play as hard as we can, and I think it will be a great match."

Both are undefeated in Singapore, and today's final is set to be a contest of athleticism.

World No. 7 Svitolina beat Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 yesterday, while sixth-ranked Stephens overcame a first-set bagel to beat Pliskova 0-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the second semi-final.

Both are first-time finalists here - since the season finale moved to Singapore in 2014, there have been five different pairs of singles finalists.

Svitolina's 2hr 39min match featured long rallies that had the crowd at the Singapore Indoor Stadium so excited that chair umpire Marija Cicak was prompted to remind them: "It's pretty exciting, but please remain silent during the point."

Svitolina, who lost her serve during a 13-minute game in the third set but broke back to edge ahead 2-1, said she regrouped by telling herself to "just go for it (and) don't wait for anything".

The 24-year-old Ukrainian added: "As my coach said, just show up and do the job. And then if you lose, you have no regrets.

"That's what I think I did. For me, that really showed I can play great tennis (on) big stages. That's what matters for me. I think it's a good step for me for the future and for the Grand Slams as well."

Stephens, who was a point away from trailing 0-6, 0-3, said: "I was thinking, 'S***. I made it all the way to the semi-final and I'm going to lose? Oh no... this is so embarrassing.'

"I just made a couple of extra plays on the ball, tried something a little different. I'd try anything just to try to get back in the match (and) when I did that, it worked."

The 2017 US Open champion believes that whether she wins or loses today, playing here will help her as she prepares for 2019.

She and Svitolina both believe they have nothing to lose, with the latter aware of the challenge that stands in the way of winning the biggest title of her career.

Said Svitolina: "(It's) definitely very special but also very special (for) the player who is going to be on the other side of the net. So I'm not alone, playing against myself.

"I'm playing great but the job is not done yet. Tomorrow is going to be another challenge, and I want to play at the same level."

WTA FINALS

Doubles and singles finals: StarHub Ch203, 4pm & 7.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 28, 2018, with the headline 'And then there were two'. Print Edition | Subscribe