SHENZHEN, China - No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty bounced back from a set down to reach her first final at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, defeating No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in one hour and 53 minutes.
"It's been an incredible year for myself and my team - it's the perfect way to cap it off," said a delighted Barty afterwards. "Knowing you've played the best of the best during the week, now you have the opportunity to play for a title, it's really special."
In the first meeting of the two highest-ranked players in the world since Caroline Wozniacki beat Simona Halep in the 2018 Australian Open final - and first at the WTA Finals since Maria Sharapova overcame Victoria Azarenka in the 2012 semifinals - the Australian backed up her Miami final defeat of Pliskova in style to extend her lead to 4-2 in their rivalry. It also completes a hat-trick of semifinal losses at the year-end finale for Pliskova, who was stymied at this stage by Caroline Wozniacki in 2017 and Sloane Stephens in 2018.
— WTA (@WTA) November 2, 2019
Barty had to raise her game after a patchy start in order to seal her place in a Tour-leading sixth final of the season - although initially, Pliskova was unable to take advantage of the opportunities that flowed in the opening stages as her first seven break points came and went over the course of Barty's first three service games. Nonetheless, the 23-year-old's up-and-down form eventually came home to roost. Though Barty would come up with some clutch tennis during this passage play, such as a redirected 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 Pliskova the break for 3-2.
With the four-time 2019 titlist landing 77% of her first serves, it would prove decisive. Pliskova faced only two break points in the set, once in the fourth game and once serving for it, and saved both clinically before sealing the set as 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, though, and once again the Roland Garros champion demonstrated this over a second set in which she reduced her unforced error count to a meagre four. Pliskova would hold another four break points in the second game, but Barty conjured up some brilliance - including a marvellous pinpoint lob to save the fourth - to escape. Both players agreed afterwards that this game had been crucial: Pliskova described it as the "one situation which I would maybe change if I can", while Barty said: "The 1-1 game was massive. Being able to dig out of that hole from 0-40 was huge. I think it was just a focus of mine to take the first opportunity I got in the second set."
Thereafter, her entire game began to click. A sumptuous sliced backhand opened the door for the Miami and Birmingham champion in the next game, and a double fault down break point from Pliskova would give Barty a breakthrough for the first time. For the rest of the set, the WTA Finals debutante had answers to everything Pliskova 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.
— WTA (@WTA) November 2, 2019
The Sydney and Beijing runner-up would go from strength to strength in the decider. Raising her first serve percentage to 73%, Barty easily out-aced Pliskova by 11 to one, with six coming in the final set alone, and would lose only five points behind her delivery. In addition, she was also effortlessly out-manoeuvring an increasingly frustrated Pliskova 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 would begin 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 would strike a forehand down the line that was too hot for Pliskova to handle on her third match point to give herself the chance of graduating to the WTA Finals trophy against No.8 seed Elina Svitolina tomorrow - whom she has yet to beat in five meetings, including a marathon three-hour, 12-minute loss in March in the fourth round of Indian Wells.
Of course, that's the kind of challenge that Barty relishes. "It's an easy one to think about because I have an opportunity to try something different," she said. "I have an opportunity to go out in the match and try something because previously what we've done hasn't quite worked or I haven't executed well enough over a long enough period to be effective. It's a match I'm looking forward to.
"[The Indian Wells loss] was a match that I earmarked earlier in the year. It took a few days to get over. I felt like in that match over the course of the three sets I did a better job of playing the way that I wanted to play. It was just kind of missed opportunities. The bonus is, I get another chance to try to rectify that as best that I can.
"Elina has the ability to put balls in very awkward situations, make you play a lot of balls, make you earn every single point. I'm looking forward to that challenge. Knowing it's the last one of the year, you can leave no stone unturned."