CANCUN, Mexico — Chris Evert was flipping through the match notes of the GNP Seguros WTA Finals, oohing and aahing at the records of the talented finalists.
“When I look at how they have played, anything could happen,” Evert said.
On Monday (4:30 p.m. local), the year-end No.1 ranking will come down to the Hologic WTA Tour’s last match of the 2023 season. If No.2 Iga Swiatek prevails against No.5 Jessica Pegula in the championship, she will regain the top spot she held for 75 weeks. If Pegula wins, Aryna Sabalenka will be the year-end No.1 for the first time.
This is only the fifth time this century the No.1 ranking could change hands at the WTA Finals. The last time was 2009, when Serena Williams overtook Dinara Safina.
Swiatek kept her hopes alive Sunday night with a resounding 6-3, 6-2 victory over Sabalenka. Pegula took out doubles partner Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-1 in the first semifinal Saturday night to advance to the biggest final of her career.
Pegula, after losing all three of her matches at last year’s WTA Finals in Fort Worth, is now a flawless 4-0 in Estadio Paradisus. She has beaten No.1-ranked Sabalenka, No.3 Gauff, No.4 Elena Rybakina and No.9 Maria Sakkari — and now contemplates No.2 Swiatek.
“Obviously, with Iga, I think having two wins over her this year is going to give me a lot of confidence,” Pegula told reporters. “But I think she’s someone where when she’s hot, she can kind of steamroll everybody. And I feel like that’s what she’s doing right now.”
The head-to-head record favors Swiatek, 5-3, but Pegula won the last time they played, in a three-set semifinal in Montreal this summer.
Swiatek called Pegula a complete player.
“She’s just solid, really good at everything,” Swiatek said. “Also, I think she’s mature and uses that. But I know what I can do. I’ll be ready.”
We asked 18-time Grand Slam singles champions Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, WTA Finals ambassadors here in Cancun, who their picks were in Monday’s final.
Navratilova and Evert faced off a record 80 times in their career. Let’s make it 81:
The case for Swiatek
Evert: “The last couple of weeks, she’s done really well, winning the title in Beijing and now getting to this final. Iga had a disappointing Wimbledon and a disappointing US Open. She wants to finish the year strong. And I think she’s got enough left over to pull it off. I know that some people have been disappointed with her 2023 season because the only major she won was Roland Garros, but look at the overall picture: She’s 22 years old. If she wins this, and finishes the year-end back at No.1, is she the Player of the Year? I think so.”
Notable stat: Swiatek has more wins (67) and titles (5) than any player on tour this year. Her 67 wins equal her total from last year.
Navratilova: “With No.1 on the line after beating Sabalenka, absolutely it’s motivation for Iga to win this last match. But … it’s also a lot of pressure. I don’t know the last time the last match of the year came to the No.1 ranking. Playing against Sabalenka, it was in her hands to deny her the No.1. That’s great, because you always want to be in control of your fate. And now in the final, Iga has control again. Think about it: You win the tournament, you get the trophy, you’re No.1 — it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Notable stat: If she returns to No.1, she will become the sixth-youngest youngest player to finish as year-end No.1 in back-to-back seasons.
The case for Pegula
Evert: “Woo! She lost all her matches a year ago in Fort Worth — 0-6 singles and doubles combined — and look at what she’s done here, solid as a rock. On Saturday she had a chance to reach both finals. Her game is well suited to these conditions. The only thing I wonder is how tired she is. She’s played more than 120 matches this year in singles and doubles. At this point, I think it’s more of a mental thing. Can she win this? In a word, yes.”
Notable stat: Facing down the World No.1, No.3, and No.4, Pegula has lost just 22 games en route to the final. When she faces No.2 Swiatek on Monday, she will become the first player to face the World No.1, No.2, No.3 and No.4 in a single event since the WTA Rankings were published in 1975.
Navratilova: “Once I saw Jessica playing in these conditions, I thought she’s got to be among the favorites. The way she played against Gauff, it didn’t even seem like it was windy on her side of the court. Jessica’s game is perfect for these conditions. If she can keep it up, I think she can definitely win. It’s just a clean game, with the wind or against the wind. She reminds me of Lindsay Davenport, the way she’s hitting it. She doesn’t seem to hit it that hard, but it carries — it’s a heavy ball and it gets through the wind. She said in an interview that she just made the decision to not let anything bother her, and it shows.”
Notable stat: Pegula is going for her 10th win over a Top 10 opponent this season. Since 2000, only four Americans have tallied 10 Top 10 wins in a calendar year: Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams.
And the winner will be …
“She has yet to drop a match and is playing with a high level of confidence. She has been unnerved by the conditions here, and that mindset will help her upset Iga in a close match.”
Notable stat: Pegula is 51-0 this season when she wins the first set. Along with Rybakina, she is one of just two players to have beaten Swiatek twice this season.
“The No.1 ranking hangs in the balance, and Iga does not want anything less. She came here to reclaim it, and she won’t stop in the final.”
Notable stat: Swiatek is 16-4 in finals. In their only meeting in a tournament final, Swiatek defeated Pegula 6-3, 6-0 in Doha this year.