WTA Finals preview: Naomi Osaka leads debutantes charge, Caroline Wozniacki looking to repeat

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When Simona Halep was asked to put her thinking cap on and analyse the WTA Finals field – now that she has withdrawn from the tournament with a back injury and won’t be competing – the Romanian was unable to pick a clear favourite.

The top-eight line-up for the season finale in Singapore reflects the incredible depth of the women’s game these days and a quick look at the match-ups indicates we’re in for a real scorcher this upcoming week in the Lion City.

“I can say I see some players that have a bigger chance, actually Caroline Wozniacki because she won last year and I think the court suits her,” Halep told reporters in Singapore on Saturday, after picking up the WTA Player of the Year award the night before.

Petra Kvitova has a big chance. Naomi Osaka has a big chance. I think everybody has a big chance. You never know. Also the emotions will play a big thing. We will see. But I’m not gonna watch, just to tell you. No, not even one minute.”

Here’s a look at three main talking points ahead of the start of the WTA Finals on Sunday…

DEBUTANTES ON A MISSION

The three WTA Finals first-timers, Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens, were all drawn together in the Red Group alongside 2016 runner-up Angelique Kerber. Of the trio, Osaka comes to Singapore with the biggest momentum, having won the US Open, made final in Tokyo, and reached semi-finals in Beijing in her last three tournaments.

The fourth-ranked Japanese – the youngest in the field – seems to be adjusting nicely to her place among the world’s best and has the benefit of previous playing experience on centre court at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, as she played and won the final of the WTA Rising Stars event there in 2015.

While others may take their feet off the gas pedal once they’ve achieved a major goal like winning their first Slam, Osaka is hungry for more and ready for battle.

“Of course I’m very happy that I am in this position that I am, but I don’t necessarily want to have the feeling of satisfaction, because that means that, I don’t know, you think you have reached your goal. For me, I don’t want to stop here,” the 21-year-old told reporters in Singapore on Saturday.

“Of course this tournament hasn’t even started yet, so definitely, to play this tournament, you have to have the goal of winning on your mind. You’re playing against the best players in the world. So I don’t know. Like I just want to compete, and after this tournament is over maybe I can think about being satisfied. But for now, I don’t know. I just feel really competitive.”

Bertens is also familiar with the venue having qualified for the WTA Finals in doubles last year, alongside Johanna Larsson, where they were runners-up. The Dutchwoman has won two of her last six tournaments, in Cincinnati and Seoul, and can rely on her tour-leading 10-5 record against top-10 opposition this season when she faces her fellow Singapore qualifiers this week.

Stephens, whose year is highlights by winning Miami and reaching the finals at Roland Garros and Montreal, was winless in Asia (post-US Open) throughout her career up until she snapped her losing streak with two victories in Beijing earlier this month. While the American has lost her opening match in three of her last four tournaments, she loves a big stage and tends to step up against the top guns. Stephens is also a combined 6-1 head-to-head against her fellow Red Group members, including a 4-1 lead over top-seeded Kerber.

BACK WHERE THEY BELONG

Kerber and Kvitova are back in the WTA Finals for a fourth and fifth time respectively. Kerber is back in the fray for the first time since she was runner-up in 2016 while Kvitova makes her return to the event for the first time since she was runner-up in 2015.

Kerber, who split with her coach Wim Fissette ahead of the tournament despite having a stellar year with the Belgian, ended 2017 ranked 21 in the world, and was far off the cut-off for Singapore. She won Wimbledon and Sydney this season and is currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

Kvitova, a WTA Finals champion in 2011, missed the season finale the last two years but is seeded No. 4 this week and leads the tour in 2018 with five titles won. The Czech lefty was happy to report that centre court this year plays faster than previous years in Singapore – faster surfaces suit her game better – and she is a comfortable 18-6 against her fellow White Group members head-to-head.

She also likes the format of the event, and carries a 7-1 head-to-head mark against her first opponent Elina Svitolina on Sunday.

“I think that, like, from the first match we are meeting the best players. So that’s like obviously I love to play the best of players on the big stage. This is kind of all eight and above that, so from the first match we really have to be ready for that. That’s why I think is bringing the best for me,” said Kvitova.

CARO LOOKING TO REPEAT

Wozniacki is bidding to become the first player to successfully defend her WTA Finals title since Serena Williams won back-to-back crowns in 2013 and 2014. The Dane’s success in Singapore last fall made way for further glory at the start of this season, as she captured her maiden Grand Slam title in Australia in January. The Dane is a combined 12-14 head-to-head against her fellow White Group members and opens her campaign on Sunday against Pliskova, in a rematch of last year’s semi-final. Wozniacki received a much-needed boost during the Asian swing when she picked up the title in Beijing earlier this month.

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