Two-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka withdrew from the season-ending Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen with a shoulder problem on Tuesday, leaving the first alternate, Kiki Bertens, to take on Ash Barty in Red Group play, and setting the cat amongst the pigeons.
In the beginning I wasn’t playing as well and had to feel the court, and [then] got better and better, as I tried to play aggressively, come to the net, and it turned out pretty well Kiki Bertens
The last-minute replacement took full advantage of her good fortune, scoring her first win over the top-seeded Barty at her 6th attempt, 3-6 6-3 6-4, from a set and a break down, in 2 hours and 9 minutes.
The Dutchwoman reached a career-high ranking of 4 in May and currently sits 10th, having lost to Aryna Sabalenka in the final of the WTA Elite Trophy last weekend.
She woke up to be told she would play, and play she did, defeating a surprisingly off-colour Barty in 3 sets.
“It is a great atmosphere and it’s the last tournament of the year so I am trying to give all the energy I have left in me,” Bertens said after the match.
“In the beginning I wasn’t playing as well and had to feel the court, and [then] got better and better, as I tried to play aggressively, come to the net, and it turned out pretty well.”
Barty just became the first Australian woman to officially end the year as World No 1 after riding the crest of a wave all season, highlighted by her breakthrough French Open triumph in June.
She arrived at the WTA Finals with a huge rankings lead over her rivals and only needed to step on court for her second match on Tuesday night to cement the top spot, meaning the 23-year-old becomes the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002 to finish a season atop the rankings, something no Australian woman has managed before.
Her victory over Belinda Bencic in her opening round-robin encounter meant a win over Bertens would have thrust Barty into the semi-finals, but the wheels fell off the Aussie wagon in Shenzhen, and she must now fight on in the wide-open Red Group.
Perhaps Barty had little time to adjust to the change of opponent, when, for the second straight year, Osaka has been forced out due to injury, having retired in tears against Bertens during last year’s edition of the lucrative year-ender in Singapore with a hamstring injury.
Osaka started the $14 million round-robin tournament with a tough 3-set victory over Petra Kvitova on Sunday to extend her winning streak to 11 matches after claiming the titles in Beijing and Osaka.
Oddly, according to BT Sport pundits, nobody on site had any inkling that the Japanese was carrying an injury, not even WTA staff or the physios, apparently, and there was no sign of it in her match against Kvitova.
Osaka said the injury surfaced in Beijing after having won Osaka, Japan, and Beijing heading into the WTA Finals.
“Actually I did this in the finals of Beijing,” she said at a news conference. “I didn’t serve for a while when I was in Japan.
“I just started serving the last two days. Felt better, came here, then I played my match.
“I felt it immediately [while playing Kvitova]. When I woke up the day after, it was like throbbing and stuff. Yeah, didn’t serve at all yesterday. Hit for like five minutes.”
Osaka’s WTA Finals debut in Singapore last year also ended on a low note with a 0-3 record in round-robin matches and retirement with an injury against Bertens in her third match after losing the first set.
“This is the second time I had to withdraw from the Finals,” Osaka said. “The last time I at least played, so a retirement instead of a withdrawal.
“I thought I was playing well. I definitely wanted to win here.”
Bertens’ quest to qualify for her second consecutive WTA Finals has been an arduous one, taking in 7 consecutive weeks of play across 2 continents since the US Open.
She finished 9th in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, narrowly missing out on direct entry to the year-end event, but as the first alternate she pulled off the best upset of her season.
The first set was a feast-or-famine fest from the service line for Barty, the Roland Garros champion, who opened the match with a love hold in barely a minute, and closed out the stanza with 2 more.
In between, though, both players came up with their best tennis on return, resulting in a sequence of 5 consecutive breaks.
Barty led throughout, driving through her backhand instead of her preferred slice, and nailing brilliantly angled winners.
Bertens was able to keep Barty on her toes with some fine defensive work and net finishes of her own but, landing just 43% of her first serves and racking up 14 unforced errors to 7 winners, was only able to hold once, and never quite managed to catch up with the World No 1.
The second was a different story, as Barty became more error-prone, racking up 15 unforced errors and her first serve percentage plummeting from 56% to 41%.
Despite grabbing the first break of the set for 2-1, the 23-year-old immediately conceded it with 3 straight poor forehand errors and, this time, Bertens was able to take advantage.
Rushing the net to shorten points whenever possible, the Dutchwoman showed off both her heavy power on the smash and her touch on a series of exquisite stop-volleys.
Her finesse was at its best during this passage of play, with a wickedly back-spun counter to a Barty drop-shot leaving the Aussie flailing.
As Bertens’ level rose, Barty fell away dramatically and, from a break up at 3-2, a cascade of unforced errors, eventually tallying 41 to 30 winners, led to a run of 8 straight games for the Dutchwoman.
The opening stages of the deciding set proved particularly one-sided for a stretch, with the 27-year-old rattling off 17 out of 20 points as she quickly built a dominant 4-0 lead.
Barty belatedly came alive to stem the tide, making for a gripping end to the match that had previously been somewhat lame.
She faced 3 points to fall behind a 0-5 triple break, and 3 more to go down 1-5, but saved them all, and over the course of 11 deuces and 2 games, Barty began to slowly peg Bertens back.
With the Australian now nailing her overheads and able to deploy her variety with accuracy again, a remarkable comeback loomed, but Bertens battened down the hatches and, focusing on the basics, made full use of her insurance break.
Landing her first serves and heavy forehands, Bertens posted 2 calm holds to hold off the resurgent Barty, reaching match point with an athletic high backhand volley and sealing victory with a simple one-two punch.
“When you give a player of Kiki’s calibre a chance to get back into the match, not once but twice, she’s going to make you pay,” Barty said later.
“That’s probably the most disappointing thing. Twice in the second set I was up a break and wasn’t able to consolidate.”
Bertens will only play two matches in Red Group because of her late entry, but can still advance to the semi-finals.
She faces Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic on Thursday, while Barty must now beat Kvitova in her last group match to secure a spot in the final 4 and stay in the hunt for the record $US4.1 million winner’s cheque.