Zuhai | Barty stuns Kerber to reach semis
Ashleigh Barty cracked the top 20, is now Australia’s highest-ranked player across both the ATP and WTA tours, and became the first to qualify for the semi-finals at the the Hengqing Life WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai on Thursday.
The tournament features the 12 leading players on the women’s tour who did not qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore last week, in addition to a local wild card, divided into four groups of three.
Barty can feel justly proud of her impressive performance in dispatching former World No 1 Angelique Kerber in straight sets to take her tally in the Rose group to an unassailable 2-0.
”It was tough group for me because I hadn’t actually beaten either of those girls,” Barty said. ”It’s nice to sort of get that revenge this week.”
The 21-year old Queenslander seems to be comfortable at the top now, winning her first match in Zhuhai with a 6-4 6-1 demolition of the in-form Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
She began her season this year ranked outside the world’s top 250 and a third-round finish at the Australian Open helped kick-start an incredible season that saw her win her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur, reach two more finals in Birmingham and Wuhan, and score wins over top-10 players Garbiñe Muguruza, Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Jelena Ostapenko and Johanna Konta.
“I think it’s exciting,” Barty replied when asked how it would feel to return to Australia with a far greater stature.
“For me, for all Australians, there is always pressure. Going into the Australian summer it’s a massive time of year for us.
“I love playing at home, and there is no more pressure than I put on myself to perform well and play well at home.
“That’s where I want to play my best for the year, to really sort of support our fans who give us so much back in return.
“We’re very lucky to be a Grand Slam nation where we can start the year off at home and be in Australia for the first couple of months of the year.”
Barty’s season has been all the more extraordinary considering that it was her first full season on tour since 2013 after stepping away from the sport following the US Open in 2014, and only returning to singles midway through 2016.
On this day the Aussie’s 6-3 6-4 win over Kerber put her on a course for the title match on Sunday.
It backed up her commanding victory over Pavlyuchenkova and such was her dominance in her tournament debut, that Barty only needed to win one set on Thursday against Kerber to seal her semi-final berth as the Rose’s group’s top player.
The Australian sewed that up in 30 minutes with another dominant serving display, at one point winning 15 consecutive points on her delivery.
“I put myself in a good position in my service games to then be super-aggressive and nice and clear when returning so I can have a little bit more of a crack and see if I can get some of those early breaks in the sets,” she said.
“I felt like I served great today and put myself in the right position right from the get-go.”
She got off to an impressive start against the 8th-seeded Kerber, securing a break in the 6th game and then firing an ace to win the set.
The pair exchanged breaks at the beginning of the second set as Kerber fought back, but Barty prevailed helped by her 11 aces to the German’s 2.
Barty, the 2011 junior Wimbledon champion, has enjoyed a resurgence since returning to tennis in 2016 after a spell with the Brisbane Heat cricket team.
After a brief fightback from the German in the second set, the world No 20 again found her rhythm on serve to prevail in just 71 minutes.
Barty served 11 aces and won 74 per cent of points on her first serve in a confident display that belied her status as the youngest in the 12-player field.
She struck a staggering 35 winners to just 12 unforced errors to dominate as Kerber posted solid numbers behind 31 winners to 22 unforced.
Barty served out the match with back-to-back aces, keeping her hot streak on serve going over her first two matches in Zhuhai.
The 9th seed has served a total of 20 aces in her two group wins and recorded her ninth Top 20 win of the season, and her career, with the victory.
Over the course of the match, Barty again saved 6 of the 7 break points she faced, and a decisive break in the sixth game of the first set went in her way as the 21-year-old cruised through her opening service games with three love holds and was never taken to deuce over the course of the first half hour.
The second set proved to be an early battle, as Kerber hit back after falling behind a break at the close of her first service game.
The German won a key five-deuce game on Barty’s serve for her first break of the match on her 6th break point, before holding to 15 to take her first lead of the match at the change of ends.
Kerber’s momentum appeared to continue into the fourth game, as she rallied to make a 40-0 game a complicated one for Barty.
Nonetheless, the Aussie came through what became a seven-deuce affair, the longest game of the match, to draw level, and broke in the next game to take a lead she never relinquished.
“It was really good,” a delighted Barty said on court after the match. “I think that first set was really important. Angie came out swinging, really, so it was tough to stay on top in that second set.
“I love playing here. It’s an extra bonus to finish the season so well and I hope I have a couple more matches to finish.”
Barty was ranked No 271 when she lost a three-setter to top-ranked Kerber in Brisbane in early January, but she will rise four places to at least No 16 in next week’s ranking, while the German will be no better than No 20 for the first time in five years.
Kerber could have advanced to the semis with a straight sets win but a pair of defeats in Zhuhai sends her home to rest and ponder.
There are many permutations, given the round-robin nature of the Zhuhai tournament, but no matter what transpires leading up to Sunday’s final, Barty will push for a top-16 seeding at January’s Australian Open.
“It’s not something that I look at before matches, before tournaments, anything like that,” Barty said of her ranking surge.
“It’s just a nice surprise the next Monday or Tuesday, depending on where you are in the world.”
She said cracking the top 100 for the first time this year was a weight off her shoulders, and that she now felt comfortable among the world’s best.
“[Before leaving tennis for cricket] I felt like a top-100 player, but I think your ranking truly reflects where you are,” Barty said.
“When I was young, I wasn’t ready to be a top-100 player, probably more mentally and emotionally than anything.
“Breaking into the top 100 this year was a big barrier for me, just to sort of get the monkey off the back.
“I just feel like now, when I walk out on the court, I’m comfortable and confident against whoever I play.”
Sevastova slips by Strycova into last four
Latvia’s Anastaija Sevastova ended the hopes of Barbora Strycova in the next match on the City of Flower’s show court, to reach the semi-finals, 6-3 6-4, topping the Camellia Group with a 2-0 record.
This was only Strycova’s first match outing and although she has yet to play Sloane Stephens, the Czech is already out of the running for any further progression in the tournament since Sevastova has not dropped a set thus far.
Like Ashleigh Barty before her in the Rose Group, the Latvian posted a perfect record in group play to advance to the knockout stage on her tournament debut.
She was a combined 0-3 in her career against Sloane Stephens and Strycova, her two opponents in the group stage, but did not drop a set in coming out victorious.
She avenged a US Open quarter-final defeat at the hands of Stephens in her opening match, and got the better of Strycova for the first time in three meetings in her second.
Sevastova came from 2-0 down in the opening set, winning 20 of the next 24 points and 5 straight games en route to take a one-set lead over the Czech in 39 minutes.
It was their first match in five years and the Latvian was quick to extend her edge and did not allow Strycova a chance to establish herself.
She used a decisive late break in the 7th game of the second set to earn her comprehensive victory in an hour and 21 minutes.
“I feel it’s my best Asian tournament in this year, so I feel great in Zhuhai,” Sevastova said.
“I haven’t been playing so well in China, in Asia, particularly, but here somehow it suits my game, I think, the court, the balls.”
Vandeweghe vanquishes Vesnina
CoCo Vandeweghe opened her account at the WTA Elite Trophy on Tuesday with a three-set win over local wild card Shuai Peng, finishing with 6 aces and converting 5 of her 8 breakpoint chances against the Chinese in the Bougainvillea group.
The second seed overcame a slow start and 2 service breaks in the first set to recover for the win.
“I wasn’t really making good contact with the ball, wasn’t really making enough balls in court, and I was just very sloppy at the start,” Vandeweghe admitted.
“That allowed her to start well into the match, and I just had to keep fighting my way back.”
On Thursday she was way quicker out of the blocks in defeating Elena Vesnina of Russia, 6-3 6-2, in her final match in round-robin play, guaranteeing her a spot in the semi-finals on Saturday as the winner of the Bougainvillea group.
This has been a breakthrough year for the American, who is now coached by Pat Cash.
Vesnina, who was struggling with a lower back injury throughout the match, was unable to overcome the methodical power game of Vandeweghe.
The World No 12 blitzed her way through the 79-minute encounter with 30 winners, including 11 aces.
Vandeweghe, who is fighting to end the year in the Top 10 with a strong run in Zhuhai, will therefore be one of the higher seeds in the semi-finals, matching her runs to the final four at the Australian Open and US Open in 2017.
She started strongly, holding her first service game to love, and then breaking Vesnina for a 2-1 lead, after the Russian hit two double faults before hitting a backhand into the net to cede the early advantage.
After Vandeweghe held for 3-1 with an ace on game point, Vesnina took a medical timeout to have her lower back tended to.
The treatment appeared to work, as Vesnina’s play improved for the remainder of the set, having particular success with her drop shot.
The Russian, however, was never able to get a good look in on Vandeweghe’s serve.
The American survived a tricky service game at 3-2 and held with an ace, and then held to love again to lead 5-3.
In the next game, Vesnina’s double faults returned, and she hit two in the game, including one down set point, to give Vandeweghe a hefty one-set lead.
The American did not face a break point in the first set, as her serve never deserted her in the opening frame, but she swiftly found herself in trouble in the first game of the second set, staving off two break points before rallying to hold.
Vesnina began to find her passing shots, and hit a successful one off the backhand side to give her two more chances to break for a 3-2 lead, but Vandeweghe again deployed her power to great effect, erasing those opportunities with an ace and a forehand winner to take the 3-2 lead herself.
From there on in, Vesnina struggled, serving at 3-2 with a dire drop shot miscueing setting the tone, and she quickly dropped her serve at love.
Two games later, a spectacular backhand crosscourt winner by Vandeweghe gave the second seed double match point, and she clinched victory on the first one via a wide Vesnina backhand.
”It was tricky in itself, playing against an opponent that’s obviously hampered, and you’re just trying to kind of manage your own emotions with that and trying to keep your intensity, keep your focus, and that definitely gets a little bit tough,” Vandeweghe said.
One semi-final slot remains open for the winner of the Azalea group to be decided on Friday.