The WTA Finals debutants have certainly grabbed their opportunity this year. From the semi-final line-up in Guadalajara, Mexico starting on Tuesday night UK time for the season-ending extravaganza of the world’s top eight players, three of them – Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Anett Kontaveit – were appearing at the prestigious tournament for the first time.
In the same way that the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal left a slightly flat pall hanging over the ATP Finals, the understandable exhaustion after eight months non-stop on the road depriving the event of clear women’s No1 Ashleigh Barty was also a shame, depriving her of a deserved chance to wrap up 2021 in the grand manner.
This year’s Wimbledon champion will keep top spot whatever happens in Mexico, and the principal beneficiary of Barty’s misfortune was Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit. With the door left ajar, the 25-year-old from Tallinn kicked it in by emphatically winning her first two matches, in straight sets against first French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, and then Karolina Pliskova.
That meant she was already into the last four, and a final group-stage defeat against Spain’s Garbine Muguruza could not do any real damage. However it was still crucial, allowing former Wimbledon and French Open winner Muguruza to edge above Pliskova and snatch the second spot in the Teotihuacan group.
For the Czech Republic’s Krejcikova, it looked just a case of running out of gas in the singles at the end of what has been a memorable year, winning both singles and doubles in Paris, and taking Olympic gold in the doubles again with Katerina Siniakova. But in her first WTA Finals, she finished bottom with three defeats.
Top seed Aryna Sabalenka also suffered an early exit in the Chichen Itza group, but only went down with a huge fight in the third and decisive match – losing in three sets and almost two hours and 50 minutes to Sakkari, the first Greek player ever to qualify. And that meant Sakkari finished behind the equally in-form Badosa as the pair powered onwards to the semi-finals.
It all means that the first finalist will be decided on Tuesday from the all-Spanish match-up between Muguruza and Badosa – followed later by Kontaveit against Sakkari, two intriguing clashes for the enthusiastic Mexican crowd to enjoy.
The 28-year-old Muguruza, such a strong and powerful all-court player these days, has clearly enjoyed her time in Central America. Receiving huge and vocal backing from the Spanish-speaking crowd, she has pictured herself on social media dancing in the streets of the nearby and iconically-named town of Tequila on her social media channels.
In what may not have been her best year, she has still won titles in Dubai and Chicago and will be the favourite against Badosa in what is their first ever meeting. And she has played well in Guadalajara, losing only the first match to Pliskova, and that being 7-6 on the tie-break in the decisive third set.
Expect an explosive encounter against Badosa, who also serves big and generates ferocious power on her groundstrokes from either wing, allied to a terrific defence. The 24-year-old was certainly one of the form players coming into the Finals, and in that sense her displays have been no real surprise. 2021 saw her win two titles – in Serbia after Ana Konjuh’s retirement with injury in the final, and then in Indian Wells beating Victoria Azarenka in a brutal three-set contest.
And then following that in the second semi-final Sakkari will take on Kontaveit, with a host of factors making this one also tough to call. Instinctively, most rational analysis would point to victory for the Greek. But other factors may come into play here.
Kontaveit arrived at the tournament having enjoyed a hotter streak than any of her rivals, winning two titles and 19 from 20 matches in a row following the US Open. There was always a danger that level of competition might catch up with her at some point, but in the group phase it worked the other way – an almost unstoppable momentum carrying her to the two victories required to seal her place in the semis, though she did appear tired in the loss to Muguruza.
It has felt like a breakthrough year for Sakkari, reaching her first two Grand Slam semi-finals at the French and US Opens and attaining her highest ranking of No6 in the world. Terrific athlete that she is, there will be a question mark about fatigue, having played in that epic win over Sabalenka a full day after Kontaveit’s final group match.
There is hardly anything in it in the head-to-head, with Sakkari having a 6-5 edge but Kontaveit having won last time out – in the final of the Ostrava Open, to claim one of her four titles this calendar year.
All have their backers, but if Muguruza is left holding the trophy and the cheque for £1.1million it could be the mother of all fiestas in Mexico. However, I hold a slight preference for Sakkari for the title ahead of two semi-finals to savour.