Elina Svitolina put a terrific finish to 2018 with a huge WTA title at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals on Sunday night. The 24-year-old stayed in control despite a terrific fight from Sloane Stephens who got in trouble late in the match that ended in a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 score at Singapore Indoor Stadium. She became an addition to a very short list of players that remained undefeated throughout the event while also becoming the first Ukrainian to win a major tennis title.
This was the final match for both of them this season and the fourth of their careers. Stephens took the series lead, ending the Ukrainian’s run at the Rogers Cup. It was the second time she defeated Svitolina on the hard court, making her the heavy favourite despite the different conditions of ball speed.
The 24-year-old came into the final, having not lost a match all week, making her one away from joining a small group of players who went undefeated. She knew if her tactics can produce a win, it would become the biggest victory of her career and one to end with a bang for 2018.
Stephens also went 4-0, dropping three sets in total, making it a true fight for conquest. With her game in fine form since recovering from last year’s US Open, the 25-year-old was set to get into action and try to keep Svitolina at bay.
Stephens had a comfortable hold of serve to start the match which wasn’t the same for the world number seven, who had trouble hitting from her spots, committing a double fault in the process. She put too much on the ball that easily handed the American a break.
She went for a hold but it didn’t come easy for her in the third as Svitolina was trying to break her back. Svitolina missed on some key moments that opened the door for Stephens to commit to her serve and clinch a 3-0 hold.
The deficit made her call down Andrew Bettles to get her back in telling her to breathe and get closer to the baseline to avoid dealing with the fast spin Stephens put on it. She faced the challenges that were alive and well with the 25-year-old, who almost forced deuce but erred the ball into the net to make it 3-1. Despite giving her a game, Stephens was still in a comfortable spot and returned her three-game margin with a service hold in the fifth.
Svitolina got into a small groove, but the dictation from Stephens was too much to handle for a chance at the break. The American reeled it back in to secure the hold and pressure the Ukrainian to break in the next game. She did indeed get the job done, continuing the attack on Svitolina to gain a break point for the set, which earned her a huge lead after 47 minutes.
She had a healthy serve percentage of 72 percent while recording nine winners. Despite having a shade more errors than Svitolina, the 25-year-old was closer to the title than ever.
After taking a break off the court, Svitolina regrouped to make sure she held the opening game of the second set. The seventh seed got deep with Stephens in a rally for a late point which helped her dictate things. She set the pace, showing a lot of response against Stephens, adding a break in the fourth to get a 3-1 lead. Stephens made sure to get back on serve at all costs as her game slowly got back into gear, pressuring Svitolina who was late on the returns.
She didn’t let her do more to level the score as she broke back in the sixth to keep Stephens back two games. The American was still a big challenge, but getting at the ball each time during the rallies allowed her to stay focussed and gain the right moment that made it 5-2 with the chance to force a third set.
Despite the challenges from the American, Svitolina found ways of taking charge to capture the set in the eighth that closed out 49 minutes, with both coaches coming out to speak to the players. Bettles asked Svitolina to stay focussed and keep the heat on while Stephen’s coach Sylvester Black told her to regroup, breathe and bring some intensity back to her offense.
Svitolina made the first move and held to open the third as she looked to be the dictator going forward. Stephens was struggling to hold her serve as Svitolina surged to achieve the break point.
Despite playing nine minutes in the game, she captured the break on her second attempt which came on a net-front lob winner. The competition was still fierce as the two went 10 minutes into the third game where Svitolina had more of a push to get the AD point on deuce. The Ukrainian had the momentum running for her as she had Stephens in trouble on the returns.
The American was in a rage of anger during the break and came into the fourth with a will to hold in the fourth. Stephens gave Svitolina no chance of coming in for a break chance that brought an end to her winning streak.
She soon found herself on a roll, gaining a triple break that clearly chipped away at the 24-year-old. It was a one-game margin standing for Svitolina whose confidence began to slide, which sent for Bettles again to tell her to make an adjustment of matching Stephens' service shots. A plea to physically battle Stephens like she had to start, was the last thing he got in before play continued into the sixth.
The world number seven did just that by playing the rallies well to force errors to come from Stephens, resulting in a key break. Errors were coming too much from Stephens that allowed Svitolina to keep calm and dictate her serve.
With the Ukrainian one game away from the biggest title of her career, Stephens was on the verge of collapse with the ball in hand to serve. She couldn’t keep it together, giving Svitolina a chance at the title that ended with a return landing wide, giving the seventh seed a massive victory after 2 hours and 23 minutes.
"It’s a very special moment for me,” said Svitolina to Andrew Krasny during the trophy ceremony. “I played great tennis this week and I’m happy to share this moment with my team.”
When asked about what this meant to her going into next season with the Australian Open three months away, Svitolina had the best answer to end the night. “It’s going to bring a lot of confidence finishing the season on a high note, so I’m very pleased with my performance.”
The victory gives her a place back in the top five, gaining back the world number three spot while Stephens rises to fifth. Svitolina sets herself up with a real opportunity to make 2019 a year of winning titles much bigger than the season finale.