Courtney Nguyen, Point: Earlier this week, Petra Kvitova was asked what she would take from the 2016 season into next year. With her typical brand of understated wit, Kvitova said simply, "Myself."
This has been a season of discovery for the two-time major champion, and she has a chance on Sunday to cap off her WTA season on a winning note. She parted ways with her long-time coach David Kotyza in January and has spent the year in search of herself, both on and off the court. The Kvitova who was a mainstay in the Top 10 and constant threat was nowhere to be found in the first seven months of the season, as the Czech sputtered to a 16-15 record, capped off with a disappointing second-round exit at her beloved Wimbledon.
The loss seemed to jolt something within Kvitova. Her form steadily improved over the summer hardcourt season, highlighted by Olympic bronze in Rio. Then came a semifinal run at the Connecticut Open and her first Round of 16 showing at a Slam in a year at the US Open. After a loss to eventual champion Angelique Kerber in New York, Kvitova fell to No.16 in the rankings, her lowest mark since 2011.
Then, as if finally unencumbered from expectation or pressure, Kvitova found her game in Asia. En route to her third final in her last four tournaments, Kvitova has resumed her near-unstoppable form in China. The signs of a resurgence began at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in September, where she beat No.1 Angelique Kerber and proceeded to blitz the field to win her first title of the season. Since her 16-15 start to the season, Kvitova is now 29-7 since Wimbledon.
Playing in her first Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai as the No.3 seed, Kvitova has been the most dominant presence in the field this week in Zhuhai, rolling to the final without losing a set and spending just over three hours on court to win her three matches. Kvitova is 18-7 in finals, having won 8 of her last 11. Svitolina is 4-1 in finals, having split the two she's played this year, winning Kuala Lumpur and losing in New Haven. The Ukrainian has yet to beat a Top 15 player in a final.
The Czech lefty has won five of her six meetings against Elina Svitolina, who is playing in the biggest final of her career on Sunday. The two played a few weeks ago in Wuhan and Kvitova won easily, 6-3, 6-1.
"With Svitolina I knew if I put the pressure on her, when she's under the pressure she's not playing as well as she is," Kvitova said after beating Zhang Shuai in the semifinals on Saturday. Of course it's always difficult to put a pressure on her because she is serving and returning well."
An in-form Kvitova on a fast, low-bouncing court is a tough match-up for anyone on any given day, and it's an even tougher task for Svitolina, who does not have the weapons off the ground to push Kvitova back. Unless Svitolina can keep consistent depth on her groundstrokes, this is going to be hitting practice for Kvitova. If Petra is on, it's hard to see her losing this match.
David Kane, Counterpoint: Consistent depth is exactly what was on display during the second semifinal in Zhuhai. Svitolina of defensive memory was stepping into the court and taking big cuts on second-serve returns against top seed Johanna Konta, winning five of the last six games to defeat the Brit, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4.
The Ukrainian youngster was the only player to have dropped a set en route to the semis. Some might say she struggled; Svitolina would say she's been tested.
"I've won a lot of three-set matches, and I play good when the matches get long," she said on Saturday night. "She came up with some good returns, couple of good returns, and I was under pressure.
"I was trying to say to myself, 'Come on. This game is very important, the return, to put pressure back and to try to get back in the game."
She heads into the biggest final of her young career with two wins of reigning World No.1s in 2016: Serena Williams at the Olympic tennis event, and Angelique Kerber at the China Open. Some credit the contributions of Hall of Famer Justine Henin; Svitolina looks more towards the physical improvements made since Wimbledon, all thanks to a new fitness coach.
"At this stage, when we're already on a high level, you need to improve everything just a little bit," she told WTA Insider earlier in the week. "Small details matter a lot; you just need to take time to adapt to new things. It's very important because whenever you change something mentally or in your preparation, you have to know it'll take time to show up on the court.
"You just need to be patient."
Svitolina will need some of that patience against Kvitova, who has struck winners at will through much of her three match wins over Roberta Vinci, Barbora Strycova, and Zhang Shuai. The Czech star has left opponents flatfooted as she blistered shots from the back of the court. Across the net, the World No.14 has attempted to employ the sort of mind games seen from Svetlana Kuznetsova earlier in the Asian Swing.
"It's the last tournament. I'm trying to think that I still have couple tournaments ahead of me. When you think about your last tournament you start to be really down in energy. You start to think about Maldives or something," she joked, referring to her inevitable off-season destination.
"I try to enjoy the moment. I think it helped in the first match when I was down the first set. Staying in the moment really helps me a lot."
Some might say she has a tough road ahead of her against Kvitova; Svitolina sees it "step by step."
"I'll need to react really fast and look for my opportunities," she said when asked about Sunday's final. "Just stay in the moment, because you never know when the opportunity is going to come.
"I will try just to focus on each point and we will see."
- All photos courtesy of WTA Elite Trophy