ZHUHAI, China - Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai Tournament Ambassador Stefanie Graf has been impressed by World No.1 Ashleigh Barty's rapid rise to No.1 since her title run in Zhuhai last fall.
"Ashleigh Barty, she did so well here last year and to have seen her pull her last year and a half together the way she has has been a whole lot of fun," Graf told reporters in Zhuhai.
Less than 12 months ago, the Australian captured the biggest title of her career in Zhuhai and rode that momentum to an incredible 2019 season, which saw her win her first major title at Roland Garros, her first Premier Mandatory title at the Miami Open, qualify for her first Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in singles, and now sit on the brink of becoming the first Australian WTA Year-End No.1.
In a season that has seen the first 19 events won by 19 different women, four different Slam champions, and a continual clash of generations as the tour's youth has taken the reins, Graf has found the 2019 WTA season a compelling watch.
"Well it's obviously different periods in the evolution of the sport, in the different times," Graf said. "There's been times we had a lot of rivalries and then there are times when you don't.
"I think the fun thing has been that it's been keeping it interesting. A lot of players that play on the high level maybe sometimes struggle to keep it up all year long, but they're always capable. And seeing especially the younger girls now being less afraid and going out there and going for it, I just think it's become a lot closer, the level.
"I think that's what makes it interesting, that you do not always know."
Adding to the unexpected nature of the season has been the late success of 15-year-old American Coco Gauff. The young phenom has risen like a rocket to No.69 in the world after a four-month stretch that saw her make the Wimbledon Round of 16 as a qualifier, the US Open third round, and win her first WTA singles title this fall in Linz.
Asked to proffer any advice for the surging teenager, Graf laughed.
"It doesn't seem like she needs a whole lot of advice," Graf said. "I mean just watching, talk about somebody that's enjoying herself out there. You can see her intensity and incredible athleticism.
"It's going to be incredible to follow her the next few years. She's got such an effortless style and such raw talent.
"So I don't think she needs any advice, the way I'm thinking."
Speaking on the state of the tour, Graf said she was very pleased to see the WTA return to Berlin for the first time in over a decade. Next season, Berlin will host a Premier-level grass event in the lead-up to Wimbledon. It will be the first time a WTA event will be hosted in the German capital since the Tier I clay event in 2008.
"To see tennis being played again in Berlin is something that makes me happy, Graf said. "And then in a club that has incredible fans and was just a big part in that city. And just to bring it back - a little different on grass court - it should be very interesting how that will transition there. But to see the tournament back on the calendar, yeah, it just made me happy."
From 1986 to 1996, Graf won the Berlin event nine times.
"It was, for me, one of these tournaments that brings back a lot of special memories, matches that were stepping stones in my career," Graf said.
"I do come back to Germany a lot for my foundation, to Hamburg, so I wouldn't know why it would not be possible to visit Berlin during the tournament."
Graf has served as the Tournament Ambassador for the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai since 2016. Watching the continued rapid development of the city of Zhuhai and the tournament itself has been a rewarding experience for the Hall of Famer.
"During my career, I never got a chance to come to China," Graf said. "So it took me a little longer and obviously a lot of things have changed.
"Seeing the popularity that tennis has here now and being part of something over the last few years, the tournament has become much more established. Seeing how the interest has grown even to the point where there are a lot more tournaments in the area, as the ATP tournament even this year.
"Being part of that growth and seeing tennis become more popular here, and more common, it's something that I found very enjoyable."