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Singapore Semis: A Déjà Vu Finale

By: Andrew Eccles

The Elite 8 had been whittled down to a foursome of the year’s strongest competitors, and Singapore waited with breathy anticipation to discover who would go on to battle in the WTA’s last major final of 2014. The semi-finals would see a Year-End No. 1 take on an undefeated round robin winner, and a Queen-slayer take on a darling of the people. Here’s a breakdown of how it happened:

Serena Williams (1) vs Caroline Wozniacki (8)

Serena Williams entered the semi-final having officially clinched the top spot for the season thanks to Maria Sharapova’s early departure. She also arrived for the contest with a blotted round robin record, having suffered a shockingly one-sided defeat to Simona Halep. Her very presence in the semis was reliant on Ana Ivanovic’s performance; a precarious position, but it was enough to see the American safely through.

Caroline Wozniacki, by contrast, arrived brimming with the belief that comes with being the only semifinalist with a 3-0 record. In the first set, her performance certainly validated this confidence.

Wozniacki was aggressive from the word ‘play’. The second point of the match would see a forehand winner from the Dane, a heretofore rare spectacle until recent work on the shot has delivered noticeable improvement. With Serena looking frantic throughout the first set, her footwork rushed and her shots finding the net with alarming regularity, it only took 26 minutes for Wozniacki to sit comfortably at the change of ends with a 6-2 advantage.

As has been the story throughout their season-long rivalry, the match quickly became about the former No. 1 and missed opportunities.

Williams awoke in the second set, gradually finding her footing and taking care to set up each shot appropriately. With this renewed calm – perhaps helped by a cathartic racket smash at 2-5 in the first set – she began to find ways to overpower her good friend. The American broke Wozniacki at 2-2 and never looked back, the Dane only able to win one more game and eventually surrendering the set on an untimely double fault.

The final set was the denouement the match deserved.

This year’s US Open finalist elevated her game now that her lead had evaporated, and Serena seemed to lose a little of the clarity she’d displayed in the second. As is so often the case with Wozniacki matches – and so rarely the case in Serena matches –  it became a war of attrition.

Both players attempted to dominate play, with Wozniacki’s new found willingness to attack keeping an ever-advancing Williams from finding a lead deep into the set. Eventually, it was Wozniacki who got an essential break to lead 5-4, with the opportunity to serve for the match. Wozniacki would passive when it mattered most, and Williams would even the score with a break to 30. Serena was the next to draw blood, leading 6-5 and earning herself a match point, one that Wozniacki would save with some thrillingly close net play that Serena couldn’t help but applaud.

In the tiebreak, Wozniacki again found the early lead and again became less aggressive as the gap opened, allowing Serena back into the competition. Eventually, after Wozniacki saved a number of match points, Williams served her way to victory with a score of 2-6 6-3 7-6(6).

For all the ferocity of the battle – which had seen roars and screams aplenty from each player – Williams and Wozniacki exchanged a warm embrace at the net.

Simona Halep (4) vs Agnieszka Radwanska (6)

While Romania’s Simona Halep walked onto the court as the slayer of Serena Williams and the champion of the Red Group, Agnieszka Radwanska was here in large part thanks to the collapses of Sharapova and Petra Kvitova, her straight sets win over the latter her only victory at the group stage.

Although competing in her maiden WTA Finals, Halep was considered the favorite in this match up by most pundits, her recent form far outweighing that of her more experienced opponent. Ultimately, the match played out as most had expected.

Despite her supernatural anticipation skills, Radwanska struggled to keep pace with Halep’s precision from the outset, and the Pole quickly found herself facing a 1-5 mountain to climb if she wanted to compete for the set. Radwanska would hold to make her opponent serve for it, but Halep didn’t blink for a moment and took the set a comfortable 6-2.

An army of family and friends – their mass presence due to Halep’s desire to celebrate her first appearance in this tournament –  bore witness to occasional bursts of frustration from the Romanian. As many have discovered, facing Radwanska is a test of patience and poise and Halep’s improved temperament proved fit for the challenge.

The French Open runner-up immediately broke in the second set with a perfect backhand down the line, a weapon that would keep bringing pain through the rest of the encounter. Radwanska never found the form, nor was she given the opportunity, to play the kind of tennis that has made her a favorite of tennis fans the world over. The scoreline of the second set  was an exact match the first – Halep raced to 5-1, Radwanska held to survive at 2-5, before the Romanian sealed the win with an overhead to take the match 6-2 6-2 and reach the last two of the WTA Finals in her first appearance.

With that, the final line up was decided: Serena Williams will take on Simona Halep for a second time this week, looking to avenge one of the most one sided defeats of her career.

On being asked about the previous win during her on court interview, Halep couldn’t help but break out into laughter, very aware of the challenge that lay before her. “I think this time she’ll be more focused,” Halep said – not with fear or resignation, but with a glint in her eye that suggests the newcomer at the top of the game relishes the opportunities before her.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!

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