WTA Zhuhai: WTA Elite Trophy preview

A busy business end to the 2016 tennis season reaches its final leg this week with the secondary-tier year-end championships, the WTA Elite Trophy. Taking place in the Chinese city of Zhuhai, twelve players make up the field with each of them vying to end their season with a title here.

WTA Zhuhai: WTA Elite Trophy preview
Venus Williams (right) was crowned inaugural champion of the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai last year. Photo credits: Left (WTA Elite Trophy) and Williams (Zhong Zhi//Getty Images).

The inaugural edition of the WTA Elite Trophy last year saw former world number one Venus Williams sail to the title, defeating Czech Karolina Pliskova in the final in straight sets. The American was bound for a second-straight appearance this year but opted not to participate.

Despite the withdrawals of Williams and Caroline Woznaicki, the tournament still boasts a strong diverse field. Among those in action include sole top 10 star Johanna Konta, Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur, veteran Roberta Vinci, young guns Elina Svitolina and Caroline Garcia and local girl Zhang Shuai.

Focus on Zhuhai

Previously known as the WTA Tournament of Champions that ran from 2009 till 2014 (hosted in Bali, Indonesia from 2009 to 2011 and Sofia, Bulgaria from 2012 till 2014), the WTA Elite Trophy’s 12-player delegation features the top 11 players who had not qualified for the just-concluded WTA Finals in Singapore and a 12th player who had not qualified for the WTA Finals or a wildcard awarded at the tournament’s discretion.

All 12 competitors will be broken down into groups of three featuring a round robin format. The four groups this year are named after flowers that grow locally, a new feature of this year’s tournament. Alphabetically arranged, the four groups are Azalea, Camellia, Peony and Rose. The winners of each group will then advance to the last four, which will be played using the knockout format, where each of the top two higher-ranked players face off against one of the other two lower-ranked players. Both semifinal winners will go up against each other in the final scheduled for Sunday. 

A bird's eye of view of the Hengqin International Tennis Centre in Zhuhai which will stage the WTA Elite Trophy. Photo credit: WTA Elite Trophy.
A bird's eye of view of the Hengqin International Tennis Centre in Zhuhai which will stage the WTA Elite Trophy. Photo credit: WTA Elite Trophy.

Located on the southern Chinese coast along the popular Chinese Riviera, the city of Zhuhai is entering its second year hosting the WTA Elite Trophy. Bordering Macau to the east, the picturesque city is one of the five Special Economic Zones established in China. The Hengqin International Tennis Centre, located on Hengqin Island off the Zhuhai coast, will be the heart of tennis action throughout the week

Azalea Group

Top seed Konta will be making her debut appearance in Zhuhai. Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Top seed Konta will be making her debut appearance in Zhuhai. Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Players: [1] Johanna Konta, [8] Samantha Stosur, [11] Caroline Garcia

Newly-minted WTA Most Improved Player of the Year Johanna Konta begins her charge for a fitting end to a breakthrough year of 2016. Despite not making the cut for the WTA Finals after Svetlana Kuznetsova grabbed the last spot by winning Moscow, the British number one has a lot of positives to take from her stellar results this year entering her last tournament of the year.

Also present in this group are eighth seed Samantha Stosur and 11th seed Caroline Garcia. Like Konta, both women are also making their debut appearance in Zhuhai. Konta’s the clear favourite to make the semifinals here. Although the Brit has yet to play Stosur, she has levelled her two meetings against Garcia, winning their most recent clash at the Olympics where she was an eventual quarterfinalist.

With Garcia probably fatigued after competing in the doubles event at the WTA Finals last week, her biggest test in this stage could come against the aggressive and hard-hitting Stosur. The top-seeded Brit however should be able to scrap her way past the Aussie in their first career meeting and sail to the last four.

Semifinalist: Konta

Camellia Group

Wilcdcard and local star Zhang will seek to impress her homecrowd by going deep in the tournament. Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.
Wilcdcard and local star Zhang will seek to impress her homecrowd by going deep in the tournament. Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

Players: [2] Carla Suárez Navarro, [6] Timea Bacsinszky, [12/WC] Zhang Shuai

Carla Suárez Navarro has enjoyed yet another consistent season which saw make the second week of all four Grand Slams and collecting her biggest career title in Doha back in February. The Spaniard’s form of late however seemed shaky. Since the US Open, she has recorded a semifinal finish in Linz but failed to make the quarterfinals at her other four events. More recently, she retired down a set to Daria Gavrilova at the Kremlin Cup with a wrist injury, entering Zhuhai with an injury cloud.

Sixth seed Timea Bacsinszky’s has had an up-and-down 2016. After a standout clay court swing which saw her go 14-3, the Swiss number one's form has deteriorated since then, making just one semifinal, in Gstaad. Since then, she went to win just three of her next nine matches. 

With Suárez Navarro injured and Bacsinszky out of form, it could be 12th seed and wildcard Zhang Shuai’s time to shine again. The Chinese number one has enjoyed a breakthrough year, making her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open and the last eight of Beijing last month. With the backing of a homecrowd, the Chinesewoman will be sure not to disappoint and is bound for another great run this year.

Semifinalist: Zhang

Peony Group

Vinci attempts a backhand slice at the China Open last month. Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.
Vinci attempts a backhand slice at the China Open last month. Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

Players: [3] Petra Kvitova, [5] Roberta Vinci, [9] Barbora Strycova

The tightest in group in terms of seeding, it is spearheaded by third seed Petra Kvitova followed by fifth seed Roberta Vinci and ninth seed Barbora Strycova. Double Wimbledon champion Kvitova is enjoying a remarkable resurgence after a dismal first half of 2016, going 26-7 since Wimbledon and winning her first title in Wuhan last month.

In this group, Kvitova is the on-paper pick to advance into the last four but it will not be a walk in the park for her. She should move past Strycova without much fuss, but against the slicing veteran Vinci, the Czech could find herself locked in frustration with the Italian’s web of backhand slices. Moreover, Vinci did beat Kvitova in their most recent meeting in Wuhan last year. Another factor which does not bode well for Kvitova is the fact that she could also come face-to-face with her nemesis, humidity, given Zhuhai’s proximity to the sea.

Strycova has enjoyed her most consistent season to date, making two finals in Dubai and Birmingham. The Czech did beat Vinci in their last two clashes and this match-up between one of the tour’s most versatile and dynamic players promises to be an entertaining one. The Italian did make the last four in Zhuhai last year and has most experience in this tournament out of the three players here. Despite a rough last couple months which has seen her win consecutive matches in just once in her seven tournaments, the Italian, fresh and ready, should come out on top to make her second semifinal in a row.

Semifinalist: Vinci

Rose Group

Svitolina will look to continue her good run of form in her second successive appearance in Zhuhai. Photo credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images.
Svitolina will look to continue her good run of form in her second successive appearance in Zhuhai. Photo credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images.

Players: [4] Elina Svitolina, [7] Elena Vesnina, [10] Kiki Bertens

Fourth seed Elina Svitolina became the only player this year to beat both world number ones Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, doing so in the round of 16 of the Olympics and Wuhan respectively. The Ukrainian has had encouraging results this past few weeks, making the semifinals at three of her last four events. The Ukrainian has seventh seed Elena Vesnina and 10th seed Kiki Bertens in her group.

Vesnina is coming off a major achievement when she and partner Ekaterina Makarova won the doubles title at the WTA Finals. In singles however, the Russian, despite having a Renaissance in this discipline, is on four-match losing streak dating back to the US Open. On the other hand, Dutchwoman Bertens, who is enjoying her best season date, put an end to a seven-match losing streak that began after a runner-up finish in Gstaad when she made the last four in Luxembourg a fortnight ago.

The most impressive player form-wise, Svitolina will look to continue her good run by coming out on top in the group to secure her spot in the last four for the second year running. The clear-cut favourite to charge into semifinals, she should be able to do so by coming out on top over both her opponents in this group unscathed.

Semifinalist: Svitolina

Based on the above winner picks of each group, the projected semifinal line-up will pit each Konta and Svitolina (the two higher-ranked players) against either Vinci or Zhang.

Semifinals: Konta d. Vinci/Zhang, Svitolina d. Vinci/Zhang

Svitolina has made two finals this year, winning Kuala Lumpur in February and then finishing runner-up in New Haven in August. The Ukrainian has three more titles to her name than Konta’s one and given her recent form, she is no doubt a good position to upset the top seed and claim her biggest career title.

Konta has achieved many firsts in 2016, making her first Grand Slam semifinal, making her first Olympic quarterfinal and winning her first WTA title at the Bank of the West Classic in July. Coming off a runner-up appearance at the China Open last month, her biggest final to date, the Brit will look consolidate that result by playing her aggressive tennis to move past Svitolina and claim her second career title and secure her ever first top 10 finish.

Final: Konta d. Svitolina