FORT WORTH, Texas -- Caroline Garcia was chatting with members of her team Monday morning in a downtown coffee shop when Aryna Sabalenka and her entourage came through the door, surrounded by a three-man Netflix film crew. Their eyes never met.
Ten hours later, the reigning US Open semifinalists would face each other in the most important match of their lives.
Garcia won the WTA Finals championship match 7-6 (4), 6-4, collecting $1.57 million and 1,375 rankings points. And more evidence that this newly aggressive, forward-thinking game suits her best.
“It’s definitely a lot of giant happiness,” Garcia said in her post-match press conference. “A crazy final, a lot of intensity on every point. Just really proud of the work we did through all the year. It was a great match -- really went for it. I’m really happy to win my biggest title.
In the end, the two players were disarmingly true to the form they’ve demonstrated across the 2022 season. Garcia, who led all Hologic WTA Tour players in aces, cracked 11 -- 10 in the first set alone -- and did not face a break point. Sabalenka, for whom double faults have been a mortifying vulnerability, hit two of her three in the critical first-set tiebreak.
That was the difference.
“I just dropped my level for a little bit,” Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference. “On the tiebreak and the first game of the second set. That’s it.
“I did my best, [but] she played unbelievable tennis.”
Garcia, the 29-year-old from France, won all of the finals she played this year and, going back six years, eight of nine.
In the fall of 2017, in a span of two weeks, Garcia scored a career breakthrough by winning the Wuhan and Beijing WTA 1000 events, and all 11 matches. That vaulted her into the Top 10 for the first time as well as the WTA Finals in Singapore. She had just turned 24. Garcia won two of three round-robin matches but fell to Venus Williams in the semifinals.
When those points came off one year later, Garcia departed the Top 10 for nearly four years. A debilitating series of injuries left her languishing in the mid-70 rankings back in June. That was when she decided to re-commit to this taking-it-early game style.
Poise, Garcia said, was the key.
“Just very happy about the mindset, to be really calm at every moment,” she said. “All the negative emotion doesn’t affect me, and that was really a big part of taking the few opportunities I had in the tiebreaker and the first game I broke her in the second.”
As Maria Sakkari observed after losing to Garcia in the semifinals, no one plays like Garcia. She operates with exquisite timing, rushing opponents. But the downside is the exceedingly narrow margin for error, a hit-or-miss calculus that can easily backfire. Healthy again, Garcia started winning and never stopped.
She needed to qualify, but won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, reached the semifinals of the US Open, a career first in the majors and qualified for Fort Worth. Five years later, in a sport that sometimes moves with the speed of timelapse photography, she made good on a rare second chance to be a star among stars.
For Sabalenka, she has been a fixture in the Top 10 for the better part of four years. Her savage baseline power, when it is under control, is intimidating. But she has faced serving issues all season.
In her first match of the season in Adelaide, Sabalenka, then ranked No.2 in the world, hit 18 double faults in a loss to Kaja Juvan, ranked No.100. The second was worse. Sabalenka’s defeat by Rebecca Peterson (No.93) featured an astounding 21 double faults. Coming into the final, Sabalenka had 425 double faults. No other player finished this year in the 300s.
This week, Sabalenka stabilized some of the bleeding and came to terms with her flawed service game. She has a “lot of experience playing without the serve,” but in retrospect it’s possible that deficiency forced her to strengthen other parts of her game.
Through the first 12 games of the first set against Garcia, Sabalenka was nearly flawless on serve. There was only a single double fault -- and she actually won a higher percentage of second serves than first. But in the tiebreak, two errant backhands backed Sabalenka into a corner and those nerves produced two double faults.
The second one ended the set and, effectively, her chances for victory -- especially when Garcia broke her to open the second set. It was the only break point of the match.
“I’m not going to say thank you to my team because it’s so many double faults, you guys are such a bad team -- no, no, no, I’m joking,” Sabalenka said.
And then she got emotional, tears coming to her eyes. “It’s been a challenging year for us,” Sabalenka said. “Thank you so much for your support.”
Garcia, too, was moved by the match. She’ll finish the year at No.4, equaling a career best.
“Sometimes you are emotional or things don’t go your way,” Garcia said. “I mean, sometimes there is a big fight, so you have to find your way through it. Some points, where you cannot do anything. You just try to put in the return and to run as fast as you can to the other side.
"And that was one of the biggest points I improved. Today one of the most important things was to stay calm and jump on every opportunity.”