Australian Ashleigh Barty beat second-seeded Plíšková, 4-6 6-2 6-3, after grinding down the big-serving Czech at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen on Saturday to seal her first appearance in the final of the year-ending championship.
I felt like that whole match was at an incredibly high level. I didn't do much wrong in the first set and I'm just really pleased to get another chance to play out here. Ashleigh Barty
Defending champion Elina Svitolina had earlier sealed her spot in a second straight final after Belinda Bencic retired midway through the third set due to due to a nagging hamstring and foot problem as she trailed 5-7 6-3 4-1, having forced the Ukrainian to drop a set for the first time in the tournament.
Barty has had a sensational season, winning the Roland Garros singles title in June and adding the Miami Open and Birmingham Nature Valley Classic titles to her name as well as becoming the first Australian woman to be World No 1 since 1976.
Plíšková, who lost at the semi-final stage of the WTA Finals in 2017 and 2018, started the better and broke in the 5th game, comfortably converting, and only facing 2 break points on her way to taking the first set.
Barty regrouped and controlled the second set to send the semi-final to a decider.
The Australian held her nerve in the third to wrap up a victory, which continues her superb season on the tour.
Plíšková put Barty’s serve under real pressure early in the first set, and that eventually paid off when the Czech broke the Australian in the 5th game before going on to claim the set.
The top seed showed her tenacity in the second as she fought back, twice breaking Plíšková to take the match to a deciding set, where she overcame the Czech to secure her spot in the final, successfully converting on her second match point.
“I felt like that whole match was at an incredibly high level,” said Barty. “I didn’t do much wrong in the first set and I’m just really pleased to get another chance to play out here.
“[The final] is a match I have to come out here and enjoy. I’ve got nothing to lose and I need to come out and enjoy and try to end my regular season really well.
“It’s an opportunity against an extremely tough player who knows how to win in these situations.”
The top seed bounced back from a set down to win after an hour and 53 minutes.
Barty had to raise her game after a patchy start in order to seal her place in a Tour-leading 6th final of the season, although initially, Plíšková was unable to take advantage of the opportunities that flowed in the opening stages as her first 7 break points came and went over the course of Barty’s first 3 service games.
Although the 23-year-old came up with some quality tennis during this passage play, such as a re-directed backhand winner with technique seemingly carried over from her time as a cricket player, a forehand into the net, one of her 16 unforced errors during the first set, handed Plíšková the break for 3-2.
The Czech faced only 2 break points in the set, once in the 4th game and once serving for it, and she saved both clinically before sealing the set when a deep forehand elicited another netted forehand from the World No 1.
Barty’s ability to adjust and tighten up her game mid-match has been crucial to her success this year and, once again, the Roland Garros champion demonstrated her skills over a second set in which she reduced her unforced error count to a meagre 4.
Plíšková held another 4 break points in the second game, but Barty conjured up some brilliance, including a marvellous pinpoint lob to save the 4th, to escape, and thereafter her entire game began to click.
A sumptuous sliced backhand opened the door for the Aussie in the next game, and a double fault down break point from Plíšková gave Barty a breakthrough for the first time.
For the rest of the set, Barty had answers to everything Plíšková threw at her, bounding all over the court with supreme anticipation and athleticism.
Barty’s defence and hand skills repeatedly enabled her to turn around points from seemingly impossible positions, including twice in the set’s final game en route to a second break of her opponent’s serve.
Raising her first serve percentage to 73%, Barty easily out-aced Plíšková by 11 to 1, with 6 coming in the final set alone, and she lost only 5 points behind her delivery.
She was also effortlessly out-manoeuvring an increasingly frustrated Plíšková with superior court awareness and variety, able to come out on top from almost any position as she racked up a total of 36 winners.
By contrast, the 2016 US Open runner-up began to hit out rather too wildly, falling away has her unforced error count hit 30.
Having tasted victory in a round-robin tournament in Zhuhai last year, Barty struck a forehand down the line that was too hot for Plíšková to handle on her 3rd match point to give herself the chance of graduating to the WTA Finals trophy against No 8 seed Elina Svitolina on Sunday.
Svitolina has not been as solid as Barty this season, so far going without a title and losing all 5 semi-finals she took part in, including her maiden US Open last four clash against Serena Williams.
The Ukrainian, however, has a superb head-to-head advantage over her Australian rival, winning all 5 matches against Barty.
The champion of the season-ending event will not only be crowned on Sunday in Shenzhen but will also pocket a cool US$4.75 million.
“It’s a match I can come out and enjoy – I’ve got nothing to lose,” the Australian said. “I can come out and try to end my regular season really well.
“It’s an opportunity against a really tough player who obviously knows how to win in these situations, so it’s a match I’m looking forward to and I can’t wait to get back out here.
While Svitolina has conceded no losses and just two sets to Barty, these came in their first encounter, and only previous on indoor hard courts, in Fed Cup World Group II action/
Their most recent clash was a 3-hour, 12-minute marathon in the 4th round of Indian Wells this year, the 6th-longest match of the season, which was taken by the Ukrainian, 7-6(8), 5-7, 6-4.
In between, Svitolina also posted straight-sets defeats of Barty at Wimbledon and Beijing in 2017, and at Miami 2018.
Svitolina is bidding to become the 7th player to successfully defend a WTA Finals title, following Chris Evert (1972-73),
Martina Navratilova (who defended the title 5 times in total between 1979 and 1986), Monica Seles (who won a hat-trick of trophies between 1990 and 1992), Stefanie Graf (1995-96), Kim Clijsters (2002-03), Justine Henin (2006-07) and Serena Williams (who won a hat-trick between 2012 and 2014).
The Ukrainian already has 3 successful title defences under her belt in her career: Baku 2013-14, Dubai 2017-18 and Rome 2017-18.
Barty is aiming to become the 6th player to lift the WTA Finals trophy on her debut in the tournament, following Chris Evert (who won the first edition of the event in 1972), Evonne Goolagong Cawley (1974), Serena Williams (2001), Petra Kvitova (2011) and Dominika Cibulkova (2016).
Svitolina is seeking her first title since winning the WTA Finals at the end of 2018, in her first final of the 2019 season, while Barty, meanwhile, has reached a Tour-leading 6th final of the year, and a title would tie her with Plíšková for a Tour-leading 4 trophies.
Barty is looking to become the second Australian champion at the WTA Finals following 1974 and 1976 winner Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
The last time either a World No.1 or reigning Slam champion took the title was Serena Williams’s 2014 victory.