ZHUHAI, China - Ashleigh Barty has ended her second Top 20 year with an exclamation point, seizing the biggest title of her career with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Wang Qiang in final of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
The Australian had begun her week by losing five of the first six games in her round-robin opener against Aryna Sabalenka, ultimately slipping to a 6-4, 6-4 defeat to the Belarusian - but has bounced back in style, sealing Orchid Group victory with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Caroline Garcia before ousting defending champion Julia Goerges 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Today's win marks the third title of Barty's career, and second of the year following Nottingham in June. The 22-year-old leaped to a dominant start, careening through 16 of the first 22 points to take a 4-0 lead. Barty's renowned variety was in full flow, her slice carving up the court with fluidity and focus as she constructed a sequence of brilliantly controlled points. "I know that whenever I have played Q in the past, it's always been an extremely tough match," she observed afterwards. "There's a tendency to have long games, whether they're return or service games. It's kind of grinding out those games."
By contrast, Wang came out of the blocks unsteadily, with both wings going awry in her first service game; the array of shots Barty sent her way effectively kept the Chinese No.1 off balance.
But Wang, playing her fourth WTA final in as many months, was not to be held off so easily. The 26-year-old began to avoid the Barty backhand, instead using her own power to elicit errors from her rival's forehand - and managed to win three consecutive games herself to erase both breaks.
With momentum on Wang's side, though, the Nanchang and Guangzhou champion was unable to take a point to level the scoreline at 4-4. Departing from the tactics that had got her back into the match, Wang began to test Barty's backhand once again - and tried to play the US Open doubles champion at her own game with a handful of dropshot attempts.
These decisions were not successful: Barty regained a break with a dropshot of her own, and strong serving and steady smashes saw her over the first-set line. "I think it was just bringing in my margins a little bit, not going for quite as much," she said afterwards of staving off Wang's comeback. "I was doing the right things. It was just a matter of missing by not a very big margin. Just had to bring those in a little bit, continue to try and get an upper hand in the points, bring in my variety as much as I can, and in a sense, just stay calm. It's still 4-3, to me. It's absolutely no panic stations."
The second set was more evenly contested, with just one break of serve in 10 games, and saw several excellent points as both players began to use every corner of the court as they bidded to outmanoeuvre each other. Wang impressed with her defence on a number of occasions, scrambling to retrieve Barty's dropshots and lobs - but the latter was impeccable on the overhead, able to put aggressive points away firmly.
The World No.19 was also better able to manage scoreboard pressure over the course of the match. Twice in the second set, Barty fell behind 0-30 on serve; both times, she responded by coming up with her best tennis to hold.
A flurry of errors from Wang led to the sole break of the set in the seventh game - and although the home favorite went down firing, firing a brace of do-or-die off forehand winners to stay alive, Barty remained unfazed. Appropriately enough, match point was a Barty special: a delicately sliced, leaping high backhand volley that spun just out of Wang's reach.
With the final WTA Tour event of 2018 now complete, both finalists have ensured their highest ever year-end finish. Barty, who rocketed from No.325 to No.17 in her 2017 comeback, will end an excellent season of consolidation at No.15; while Wang will break the Top 20 for the first time to become the first Chinese player to end a season in that stratum since Li Na's final year in 2014.
Barty's new ranking will also be a career high - and although she had not been aware of that beforehand, she was still deeply satisfied with her 2018 campaign. "That's a really neat way to finish off the year," she remarked.
"It's been a truly phenomenal year. My goal is to stay top 20 and try and consolidate as best I can. We've been able to do that and come away with a couple of titles, as well, and still being very successful in doubles. It's been a really, really amazing year. Now we get to go home to celebrate that and then prepare for bigger and better things in 2019, starting with the Australian summer."