When Elina Svitolina was told in July an undefeated champion at the WTA Finals would receive $4.725 million — the biggest payday in tennis — the Ukrainian joked: “I was one year too early.” She won the title last year.
Svitolina could still pocket that hefty sum after increasing her winning streak at the year-end championships to eight matches by downing Simona Halep 7-5 6-3 in two tight, entertaining sets in Shenzhen, China.
The 25-year-old booked her spot in the semifinals from the Purple Group, but she won’t be joined by teen phenom Bianca Andreescu. The 19-year-old, who became Canada’s first ever grand slam singles winner after triumphing at the US Open in September, was forced to retire at 3-6 against Karolina Pliskova.
Andreescu needed a medical timeout in her agonizing three-set defeat by her idol Halep Monday because of a sore back, but Wednesday the left knee was her undoing. She hurt the knee while hitting a return in the second game and heard a “crack.” She bravely continued, but called it quits when the first set went the way of the big-serving Czech.
It means that the winner of the Pliskova-Halep duel Friday will join the undefeated Svitolina in the last four.
Like last year, Svitolina was one of the last players to qualify for the eight-woman tournament. Her prospects seemed bleak ahead of Wimbledon after a knee injury severely disrupted the early part of her campaign.
But she ended her grand slam drought by reaching back-to-back semifinals at Wimbledon — losing to Halep, the eventual champion — and the US Open. The title in Shenzhen would not only give Svitolina, who dates men’s pro Gael Monfils, a huge paycheck but it would extend her run of winning at least one title in a season to seven.
“I think (the) biggest motivation is to get the trophy this year,” Svitolina told reporters this week. “This is my last chance. I try to win as many matches as I can.”
Halep and Svitolina, two of the finest movers in the game, have taken turns in beating each other in patches. Halep won the first two, Svitolina bagged four of the next five and the Romanian claimed the last two.
The back-and-forth nature also extended to Wednesday’s match itself. Svitolina led 3-0 before Halep leveled at 3-3. One of the key moments came when Svitolina saved a break chance in the ensuing game to settle. She subsequently broke to end the set.
The rallies were breathtaking, both players covering every inch of the court. Normally the one producing spectacular highlight-reel efforts, Halep was outdone by Svitolina. Two of her best shots included a wicked forehand slice winner to end a lung-busting rally in the second set and a blasted forehand winner down the line from well behind the baseline.
“It brought me a point, a very important one,” Svitolina said of her rare slice winner. “Surprised the opponent. You never know, it might help me in the future, too.”
Svitolina had to save two break points in the final game against Pliskova Monday in a match that featured the longest tiebreak in tournament history and did the same against Halep to seal the encounter.
It’s not known whether the eliminated Andreescu will take to the court Friday against Svitolina. If she doesn’t, second alternate Sofia Kenin would come in after first alternate Kiki Bertens replaced Naomi Osaka.
The Japanese star withdrew from the event Tuesday because of a shoulder injury, with Bertens stepping in and knocking off world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the Red Group.
Andreescu considered stopping at 2-3 in the first set against Pliskova but continued after assessing the 2016 US Open finalist’s game style.
“My knee twisted,” she said during a coaching visit from Sylvain Bruneau. “I heard a crack. (The trainer) validated me that (it’s) my meniscus. It’s cracking every time I walk and it fr****** hurts.
“I don’t want to stop. If it was against Simona, then OK. But (Pliskova) misses.”
Pliskova, however, was solid and Andreescu’s match and perhaps season, concluded.
“At some point an athlete has to say ‘Stop’ and just listen to their body,” Andreescu, who also suffered from a serious shoulder injury this year, was quoted as saying by the WTA. “That’s what I did.”
“It’s disappointing because this is the last tournament of the year, you want to go all out. You’re playing one of the biggest tournaments of the year, too. It’s not easy.”