WASHINGTON, November 4, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Ashleigh Barty made a bit of tennis history Sunday evening at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in southeastern China. The top-seeded Barty beat defending champion Elina Svitolina, 6-4, 6-3, before an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd inside Shenzhen Bay Tennis Centre and seen by a worldwide TV audience in the millions. At the end, she lifted the Billie Jean King Trophy and finished year-end World No. 1.
For her achievement, Barty won more money – $4.42 million – than any male or female professional ever has in a single tennis tournament. And, the affable, 23-year-old Aussie did so with a breathtaking performance that lasted a business-like one hour and 27 minutes to cap a most spectacular season.
“Bizarre, if I’m being completely honest. It feels like it’s been a year that just hasn’t stopped. It’s been a year of incredible ups and downs,” said Barty, who finished the WTA Finals 2-1 in her group (defeating Belinda Bencic and Petra Kvitova while losing only to Kiki Bertens) before toppling No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals en route to reaching Sunday’s final. “I think more ups than downs. To cap it off with a very, very special night tonight in Shenzhen is really cool.”
With her triumph, Barty becomes the first Australian since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1974 and 1976 to capture the WTA Finals title and only the fifth player to win the tournament in her debut. The Queenslander has single-handedly put Australian women’s tennis back on the map.
Against Svitolina, whom she came into the final with an 0-5 win-loss record in career head-to-heads, Barty took advantage of most – if not all – of her opportunities. She won close to 50 percent of her return points, broke Svitolina four times in eight tries – including three in the 10th game, finally hitting a forehand return winner on her third opportunity to win the opening set. The second set was characterized by five service breaks in the first eight games, which gave Barty a chance to serve for the match at 5-3. She closed it out at love.
On a night in which Svitolina managed to place only 55 percent of her first serves in play, the Ukrainian managed just two service aces after hitting a career-high 16 against Bencic a day earlier in the semifinals. “I missed just little bit of my chances and that’s what made the difference,” Svitolina said during her press conference.
As both players awaited the start of the awards ceremony, it was very evident from their facial expressions who had won and who came up short. Barty sat quietly and patiently, grinning from ear to ear, while Svitolina bore a look of total disappointment and fidgeted with her smartphone.
“For me, each time I step on court I want to win. There is no other way. I want to win, doesn’t matter what tournament it is,” Svitolina recently told the WTA Insider. “Since I’ve been on the WTA tour I’ve won a title every year. I got a little bit spoiled, maybe.”
Although she will finish the year ranked No. 6, Svitolina did not win any WTA titles despite reaching the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the US Open as well as at Doha, Dubai and Indian Wells.
When Barty was asked during her final Shenzhen press conference to describe her breakthrough win against Svitolina, she said: “Tonight it felt like it was a lot more clear, a lot more concise from my end. I took my opportunities when I got them. (The forehand) was a side that I wanted to try to get into tonight. I think it was also important for me to move forward, then to try to bring Elina in a few times as well, which worked really well.”
Barty was equally effective against Svitolina on the slow court, whether drawing her in toward the net with her deceptive drop shots and backhand slice — or from deeper back ripping forehand winners from the baseline.
Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport, who won the 1999 WTA Finals title and commented on the final for Tennis Channel in the U.S., said: “Barty stayed so composed throughout the entire match. There were parts of the match where her game, her forehand, left her – her biggest shot.
“You never saw any reaction from Barty. She just kept her head down and kept going to work – especially down the stretch. She was the more solid player and it was Svitolina who cracked.”
Barty reflected positively on her success. “To come through a week like this, you have to beat the best of the best,” she said. “It takes me back to some memories in Miami where I felt like I did that for the first time, beating back-to-back Top 10 players, having that really consistent week. I’ve grown and developed so much since that fortnight in Miami. To be able to bounce back after the disappointment after my match with Kiki was really important.”
Looking back, Barty finished the season with the most wins on tour (56), the most Top 10 wins (12) and tied with Pliskova for the most titles won on tour (4). She won titles on every surface. Of the nine biggest titles in women’s tennis, Barty won three of them – Roland Garros (Grand Slam), the Miami Open (Premier Mandatory), and the WTA Finals. She became the first Australian woman ranked No. 1 since Goolagong Cawley in 1976.
Also, Barty became the first player in the 44-year history of the WTA rankings to become the year-end World No. 1 after finishing the previous season outside the Top 10. She rose from a 2018 year-end ranking of No. 15 to finish 2019 at No. 1 by playing in just 15 tournaments. Not bad for someone who was ranked No. 315 at the end of 2016 after taking a gap year to leave tennis for professional cricket.
“To be able to call myself the year-end World No. 1 singles player is one of the proudest moments of my career,” said Barty, as quoted by the WTA website. “This achievement is truly a team effort, and I would not be receiving this honor or had the best season of my life without the people around me who have supported me on this incredible journey.”
With little time to celebrate, it’s back to Australia for Barty, where she will anchor Team Australia in the Fed Cup finals against France this weekend in Perth.
“There’s one more very important week to cap off what would be the most perfect year,” said Barty. “This Fed Cup final is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
“Playing for your country, for myself to play in front of my friends and family, representing Australia, wearing the green and gold. There’s absolutely nothing better.”