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PREVIEW: 2023 WTA Tour – WTA Finals – Bacalar Group 3rd Matches

Damien Kayat previews Aryna Sabalenka vs Elena Rybakina and Jessica Pegula vs Maria Sakkari in 3rd matches (Bacalar Group) of the WTA Finals on the 3rd of November 2023.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan
EPA/Alonso Cupul

Damien Kayat previews Aryna Sabalenka vs Elena Rybakina and Jessica Pegula vs Maria Sakkari in 3rd matches (Bacalar Group) of the WTA Finals on the 3rd of November 2023.

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2023 WTA Tour
WTA Finals
Plaza Quintana Roo, Cancun, Mexico (Outdoor Hardcourt)
Bacalar Group: 3rd Matches – 3rd November

Aryna Sabalenka 8/15 | Elena Rybakina 27/20

This match is now a deliciously poised winner-takes-all affair. The much-criticized Cancun venue must have taken umbrage with Aryna Sabalenka’s particularly barbed comments, as the seemingly imperious Belarusian crashed down to earth after an insipid showing against Jessica Pegula.

Her performance against Pegula was the complete antithesis of her dominant display against Maria Sakkari. She looked out of sorts from the go, committing a hefty 33 unforced errors in the face of Pegula’s commendable defensive rigidity. Sabalenka was taken aback by Pegula’s aggression on return and it completely upset her equilibrium.

She barely managed to win half of her first-serve points and those pesky double-faults crawled back into her game. Sabalenka- who was the beaten finalist in last year’s WTA Finals- will possibly need victory in this match to fend off Iga Swiatek in their pulsating battle for the World No.1 ranking.

Elena Rybakina was similarly outmaneuvered by Pegula in her opener but she produced a far more assured display against Maria Sakkari. She blitzed the Greek 6-0 in the opening set before a spirited fightback from Sakkari culminated in two hard-fought tiebreaks.

Rybakina started this year in tremendous fashion, reaching the Aussie Open final and winning titles at Indian Wells and Rome. But a series of injuries have really affected her performances in the latter part of the season. She withdrew from the French Open with a back issue and she also sustained unspecified injuries in Montreal.

This led to her withdrawal in Cincinnati and she has been struggling to rediscover her best form since. But a recent semi-final run in Beijing seemed to hint at a bit of a renaissance. Rybakina has one of the biggest serves in the game and that will always give her a puncher’s chance.

Verdict: Rybakina to win in three at 16/5

Sabalenka holds a 4-2 head-to-head record against the Kazakh. But 2023 has actually saw Rybakina claw back some ground in their blockbuster rivalry. Sabalenka overcame the Kazakh in a tight Aussie Open final.

But Rybakina avenged that defeat with a thrilling straight-sets victory in the Indian Wells final. And she recently took down the Belarusian in the Beijing quarters. I think Rybakina has a bit of a mental edge over Sabalenka. The added jeopardy of the World No.1 ranking may also affect that notoriously shaky Sabalenka delivery.

Jessica Pegula 1/3 | Maria Sakkari 2/1

Jesscia Pegula has clearly come to Cancun with a point to prove. The industrious American lost all of her WTA Finals matches last year in what was a microcosm of her inability to deliver on the bigger stages.

But she has looked magnificent this year, qualifying top of the Bacalar group after a rousing straight-sets win over old tormentor Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka had won their last four consecutive matches (including a group stage match during last year’s WTA Finals). I really thought that Sabalenka’s heavier hitting style would see her emerge victorious against the American.

But Pegula’s flatter groundstrokes allowed her to minimize errors and force the Belarusian into mistakes. Pegula was extremely aggressive in her return position, landing a staggering 86% of her first-serve returns. It was the type of performance that rubbishes the notion that she lacks the firepower at this level. Pegula is now 49-0 in the season after winning the first-set and she is the first American to produce five consecutive top 10 wins since Sloane Stephens in 2018.

Coming into the WTA Finals as a replacement for the injured Karolina Muchova, Maria Sakkari probably felt quietly confident of enjoying a solid week. A semi-finalist in this event in 2021, the powerful Greek baseliner won her maiden WTA 1000 title at this year’s Guadalajara Open.

She probably assumed that form in that massive Mexican event could translate into form in this. Unfortunately, she became the first woman to exit this year’s competition after a tense three-set defeat to big-serving Kazakh Elena Rybakina.

You actually have to admire the gumption of the Greek. She was trounced by Sabalenka in her opener and Rybakina proceeded to bagel her in the first set of their match. Sakkari was teetering on the precipice of a pretty embarrassing Cancun meltdown.

But she rallied brilliantly, pushing the last two sets to tiebreaks and showcasing what she is capable of. Can she expect a drop-off from a player who has already qualified for the semi-finals? Or is it going to be hard for her to motivate herself in what is essentially an exhibition match?

Verdict: Pegula to win in three sets – 13/5

Sakkari actually leads Pegula 5-4 in what has become a pretty juicy head-to-head rivalry. But the American leads their 2023 matches 2-1 (including a straight-sets win in Japan just a few months ago).

I think Sakkari showed enough fight in that Rybakina defeat to suggest that she won’t just limp out of this year’s event. Pegula is a true professional who won’t take this match lightly. A tight three-set win for the American makes a lot of sense.

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