SHENZHEN, October 27, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
When top seed Ashleigh Barty secured match point to complete her 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 comeback win over seventh seed Belinda Bencic during the opening day of group play in the Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, it meant that the Aussie had clinched the year-end World No. 1 ranking – provided she steps on court for at least one more round-robin match. That shouldn’t be a problem.
After Barty’s recovery Sunday evening to beat the Swiss No. 1 Bencic, she described finishing the year ranked No. 1, after winning titles at the Miami Open, Roland Garros and Birmingham – each on a different surface – as “really exciting,” especially considering that it had not been a goal of hers. And, she made some history, too.
For the first time since the WTA Tour began keeping a history of year-end world rankings in 1975, a year-end World No. 1 will come from a place other than the United States or Europe.
“It certainly wasn’t something that was in my realm at the start of the year,” said Barty, who beat Bencic in one hour and 56 minutes. “First and foremost, we’d love to finish off the week here really strongly, then we can worry about celebrating that little thing. Very, very cool for myself, my team. The amount of work and effort we all put in, it does take a village. I have an incredible team of people around me. I think this is more for them than for me.”
Barty made the necessary adjustments after dropping the first set to Bencic, and she finished strongly by winning 14 of the final 17 games of the match and hit 30 winners. By losing, it snapped Bencic’s four-match winning streak, going back two weeks to her title run in Moscow as well as four consecutive wins against reigning World No. 1s.
— WTA (@WTA) October 27, 2019
“It’s important to notice what’s not working, what is working, adjust the game plan accordingly,” said Barty. She has now won 11 matches this year when she trailed after losing the first set. “I think in particular for tonight, it was important in the first two or three games in the second set to try to reset the tone. I was able to do that with my first service game, first return game, and roll on from there.
“I prefer not to be a set down more often than not. I mean, I want to hang around. I don’t want to roll over and give my opponent an easy win.”
Barty’s next opponent will be the reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, who earlier this year was ranked No. 1 in the world and came into the WTA Finals seeded third. Osaka opened play in the Red Group Sunday afternoon with a 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-4 win over sixth seed Petra Kvitova, who hit 40 winners but also committed 40 unforced errors. The two faced each other in last January’s Australian Open final, an exciting three-setter, in which Osaka lifted the second Grand Slam trophy of her young career.
Osaka calmly won the first set from down a break, became frazzled when she lost the second set from a break up, and, finally, redeemed herself when she dominated Kvitova in the decisive third set as the Czech committed three of her match-total nine double faults down the stretch. Osaka fired 12 aces, broke Kvitova’s serve five times and outpointed her 104-102.
By winning, the Japanese superstar equaled her personal-best winning streak of 11 victories, set in 2018 during her US Open trophy run followed by reaching the final in Tokyo.
Osaka gained Kvitova’s respect. “I know how Naomi is playing, how confident she is from the pat weeks when she played well in Asia. So, I did expect a really tough match,” said Kvitova.
“I think we showed great tennis today. I think I played great, too. She was just better in the break points, those important points.”
When she was asked how the group round-robin format affected her play, Osaka said “I’m not great at first rounds. It takes me a little bit to warm up. I think that this tournament forces you to do well early.” After going 0-3 in her WTA Finals debut in 2018, Osaka admitted that in coming to Shenzhen this year, she is motivated to “redeem (myself)” a little bit.
“Everyone that knows me knows I feel like it’s two separate personalities,” Osaka revealed to media during her press conference following Sunday’s win. “Like I’m either really calm to the point where I don’t care about anything, or I’m very frazzled quite easily and I invest all of my emotions. It’s just kind of navigating that and trying to figure out how to be the calm person all the time on the court – which is really hard because I invest a lot of time in tennis, so I feel like it’s the one thing that I’m very emotional about.”
Red Group / singles
No. 1 Ashleigh Barty d. No. 7 Belinda Bencic, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2
No. 3 Naomi Osaka d. No. 6 Petra Kvitova, 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-4
Purple Group / doubles
No. 2 Hsieh Su-wei/Barbora Strycova d. No. 7 Samantha Stosur/Zhang Shuai, 6-4, 4-6, 10-5
No. 6 Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova d. GArbriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan 6-4, 6-2
Purple Group / singles
No. 2 Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 8 Elina Svitolina, not before 6:30 p.m.
No. 4 Bianca Andreescu vs. No. 5 Simona Halep, not before 8 p.m.
Red Group / doubles
No. 3 Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic vs. No. 5 Chan Hao-Ching/Latisha Chan, 4 p.m.
No. 1 Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 8 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Demi Schuurs, following second singles match.