Shenzhen | Barty dethrones Svitolina
World No 1 Ashleigh Barty emphatically re-affirmed her status as the best player in the world when she overturned a winless head-to-head to overcome defending champion Elina Svitolina and lift her 4th trophy of 2019 in the final of the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, capping off her spectacular season.
It has been a remarkable year, [and] tonight was about coming out and fighting to the end. I couldn't be prouder. It has been an incredible year, Ashleigh Barty
After the high-quality match, which Barty won 6-4 6-3, she also claimed the biggest prize money ever offered in tennis, a record $4.42m (£3.42m).
The Australian had lost all her 5 of her previous matches against the Ukrainian, but she came through a testing second set, featuring 5 breaks of serve, to take victory when Svitolina netted.
In what turned into a roller coaster encounter with high quality tennis from both players, the Australian hit 30 winners, compared to just 8 from Svitolina.
Barty also claimed 65% of her service points and broke 4 times in the match.
“On this slow court I had to take a few chances.” Barty told BT Sport after. “I had to come in a little bit more and try to shift court position.
“So I was in control a little more often than not. Even if it did mean a few errors, but I’m certainly happy with the way it planned out tonight.”
While Barty did not quite pick up the maximum $4.75 million on offer after suffering a defeat to Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands during the round robin phase, her prize money is still a record for both men’s or women’s tennis.
It eclipses the maximum $2.7 million which will be handed to the winner of the men’s season-ending ATP Finals in London, as well as the $3 million on offer at Wimbledon and the US Open’s amount of $3.8 million.
It also caps an incredible season for the 23-year-old, who ends the year as World No 1 and now adds the WTA Finals crown to the French Open title she won earlier this season.
She also added the Miami Open and Birmingham Nature Valley Classic titles to her name, topping the WTA rankings as she edged out Naomi Osaka, becoming the first Australian woman to be number one since 1976.
The last time a reigning Grand Slam champion took the WTA Finals was in 2014, when US tennis legend Serena Williams won her third straight WTA Finals crown in Singapore.
Barty, who guaranteed herself the WTA Year-End World No 1 Singles Ranking presented by Dubai Duty Free earlier this week, becomes the second Australian to capture the WTA Finals crown following 1974 and 1976 champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and the 5th player to win the tournament as a debutante.
What makes her success even more remarkable is the fact the Aussie stepped away from the tour following the 2014 US Open, saying she felt tennis was a ‘lonely sport’.
The Queenslander switched to cricket and played for the Brisbane Heat in the women’s Big Bash.
After rising to the top 20 last year, Barty’s unique mix of power and variety, intelligence and creativity, has taken her to the top of the women’s game with titles on all surfaces.
“It has been a remarkable year, [and] tonight was about coming out and fighting to the end. I couldn’t be prouder. It has been an incredible year,” Barty said.
“I’m proud of myself and the team, we tried to put ourselves in the biggest situations and occasions and we managed to do that.”
Both players were sharp out of the blocks on a court has drawn both comment and criticism this week for its slowness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a battle between the best servers in the tournament, Barty and Svitolina traded service games through the first set of the decider, until the Australian finally broke in a lengthy 10th game to take the first set 6-4.
A series of rapid-fire points saw the first 8 games pass without so much as a break point, demonstrating that accurate placement and strong serving could go a long way to hitting through the rough surface.
Only at the business end of the set did opportunities begin to arise, which decided the opening act by the finest of margins.
Conjuring up a pinpoint lob and backing it up with an emphatic drive volley, Svitolina carved out the first break point of the set, but her forehand drifted just wide on it, and Barty extricated herself from the game with a trademark accurate, line-to-line point construction that she finished with finesse at the net.
A game later, it was Barty making the moves, and although Svitolina bravely fended off two set points, the second with a magnificent pass, a dead net cord garnered the Roland Garros champion a third chance.
This time she rose to the occasion, smacking away a clean forehand return winner.
For the majority of the match, Barty’s game was watertight, particularly on the biggest points, and while she did experience one loose patch of form, dropping serve for the first time with a handful of errant backhands and a double fault to go down 1-2 in the second set, she responded with her most spellbinding passage of play, reeling off the next 3 games by excelling in every aspect of the game.
She weaved her web around the court with her slice, taking on every short forehand and overhead with relish, and demonstrating supreme anticipation on defence.
Desperately clinging on, Svitolina continued to hustle, rushing the net and striking through her backhand to superb effect.
The French Open champion appeared to be on a roll as she broke again on the back of Svitolina’s first double fault of the match to reach 4-2, but Barty could not hold her serve in the next game and the match was back on serve once again.
The tactic won her the break back, but Barty was not to be denied for long and she won a series of breathtaking cat-and-mouse points to strike again in arguably the finest game of the match.
It looked like the run of breaks would continue when Barty replied to reach 15-40 in the next game, only for Svitolina to rattle off 3 straight points to have advantage, but the rollercoaster continued as Barty fought back to take the break before powering through her service game to hold to love and take out the tournament in style.
It’s been a remarkable year. Tonight [in Shenzhen] it was about coming out here and fighting right until the end,” said the year-end No 1.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with my team and myself. I’m just so pleased with all of us. We’ve had an incredible season.”
Svitolina was bidding to become the 7th player to successfully defend a WTA Finals title after a barren season in which she did not win a single title.
Earlier, Svitolina’s coach Andrew Bettles was asked if a potential $4.7 million prize money cheque was huge motivation for the Ukrainian, and he admitted: “We don’t really discuss that.
“If this tournament and 1500 points to win it isn’t motivation enough, then, I think, you have a problem.
“She can draw confidence from the fact that she’s defended big tournaments before in Dubai and Rome. And take confidence the fact she likes the court, likes the surface, likes this tournament, likes playing big players.
“It’s kind of worked well.”
Looking ahead to the final, Barty concluded: “I think that’s the biggest thing, it’s been a growth of women’s sport. For me individually, and I think for all of us players individually, it’s not something we think about.
“It’s more of kind of a general progression of putting our sport more on the map.
“I think we have the most beautiful sport, it’s a global sport. Now we’re getting more attention. I feel like we’ve earned that. As Micky [Lawler, WTA President] has said a million times: We’ve come from nothing and now we’re in this position where we’re breaking records.
“It’s very special for our game, the WTA, all of the people behind the scenes that do so much hard work to try to put our sport on the map, try to create more of an interest globally.”
Having lived up to her top ranking and her career-best season filled with numerous firsts, the Australian has now added another career first by beating Svitolina for the first time at the 6th attempt to bring an end to the Ukrainian’s 9-match winning run at this event.
It also completed her perfect preparation for next week’s Fed Cup final against France in Perth, where Barty will bid to lead Australia to glory for the first time since 1974.