The defending champion clinched her second straight trip to the finale of the WTA Finals Saturday. Staying completely focused, Elina Svitolina kept her eyes on the goal while Belinda Bencic struggled with an injury that forced her to retire at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. The abrupt halt in the third set gave the 25-year-old defending champion a 5-7, 6-3, 4-1 win to advance to Sunday’s championship match.
This was the fourth overall meeting between the two and the third time this season. Bencic had the better season, winning two titles, while the defending champion is looking for her first. Svitolina had yet to drop a set even after she clinched her spot in the semifinals. The victory against Sofia Kenin in straight sets kept her record flawless, marking the second year in a row that she remains undefeated. Despite losing twice to Bencic, who was on the cusp of the final of the biggest title of her career, the 22-year-old had the wherewithal to force the Ukrainian the distance.
The Swiss served first, holding her rival to a small margin in the first game. The Ukrainian answered the second with an ace, followed by a winner. Making a huge statement, Svitolina recorded two more aces to hold the serve to love.
The two served comfortably through four games before a fight for control ensued in the fifth. Bencic forced deuce to remain on serve playing one break to accomplish it. A break handed her a 4-2 lead, but a second double fault put her in a 0-40 situation.
She failed to recover fully, allowing the Ukrainian to break back. A chat with Andrew Bettles possibly gave Svitolina the idea to strike the ball harder and early in the rallies. She leveled the score to four-all putting them back on serve where Bencic had some trouble but held the ninth to play for the set in Svitolina’s service. The world number eight denied Bencic that honor, forcing the set deep. The Swiss held the 11th, but before her opponent could play for a shot at the tiebreak, she called for the trainer to receive a medical timeout.
During that time, Svitolina called down Bettles, who gave her a more detailed account of how her play was going. When the timeout was completed, Bencic came out hard against the 25-year-old, reaching two set points only to be forced to deuce. She found a way to produce two more set breakpoints and clinch the victory that brought the Ukrainian’s streak to a halt.
It took 48 minutes for the Swiss star to pull off the feat that saw her keep the first serve high and outduel Svitolina on the second serve by a sizable margin. Both had 12 unforced errors, but the edge for Bencic on winners made the difference.
Into the second
As the second set got underway, cramps in Bencic's right leg caused her to trail early. The opening break went to Svitolina who easily consolidated in the second game. Before serving in the third, the 22-year-old tried to stretch the leg out during serves, revealing pain in her facial expressions. She played on to win the game before calling out the physio to alleviate it. Despite the short treatment, Bencic went out to play the fourth but couldn’t dig in.
She managed to hold serve in the fifth, before going for a break chance to level. Svitolina forced deuce that went two breaks before leading 4-2. Bencic tallied another service game but quickly went down two games with Svitolina getting her opportunity to force a deciding set.
Mistakes from Bencic sealed the deal for the 25-year-old who was invested to go for broke. It was a 34 minute run of success for the Ukrainian keeping the unforced errors low and winners totaling 15. She called out Bettles, who told her to keep the mentality and emotions in check. Keeping Bencic back, maintaining composure, and playing every point would be her key to making the final.
Svitolina was dialed in just as her coach asked to open the third set with a solid hold. She broke Bencic in the second that rattled the 22-year-old to briefly lose her emotions and fall three games back. The Swiss ended the winning streak of her opponent with good shots that gave her a service hold.
After Svitolina served to love with aces in the fifth, the Swiss star called it quits. The pain had become too much for the 22-year-old who came to the bench of the Ukrainian to shake hands and bring the match to a halt after one hour and 50 minutes.
"You never want to finish the match and see your opponent retiring," Svitolina said to Andrew Krasny during her on-court interview.
"It's tough for her, especially the end of the season in one of the biggest tournaments, and you want to play well, and it's very sad. Hopefully, she can recover and be strong for next year."