WUHAN, China - Two years on from losing the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open final, No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty got her revenge over 2017 conqueror Caroline Garcia in the second round this year, finding her form just in time for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 comeback in two hours and 11 minutes.
Barty - who has now won both of her encounters with Garcia since that final, having also defeated the Frenchwoman en route to the Zhuhai Elite Trophy title last year - successfully cleaned up her game and adjusted her tactics to recover from an opening set in which she committed 19 unforced errors. In so doing, the Roland Garros champion also preserves her hopes of retaining the World No.1 this week, staying ahead of challenger Karolina Pliskova.
"I had to make some small adjustments in the second set," assessed Barty afterwards. "[The first set] was just kind of ebbing and flowing a little bit. Caro played the bigger points better... It was just about me being a little bit smarter with my serving and trying to be in control in those first couple of points. Then just some small adjustments off the ground to make sure I came over my backhand a little bit more... It was important I took a little bit more of an initiative on that backhand side."
Nonetheless, it took Barty a while to find her rhythm. A tightly contested first set in which every game went to at least 30 was decided more by mistakes than winners, featuring five breaks of serve over its duration. But although both players emerged with negative ratios - Garcia landing seven winners to 12 unforced errors, Barty with nine to 19 - it was the World No.30 who retained greater control over her strokes at the business end of the stanza.
The 2017 champion also demonstrated superior strategic awareness: rather than engage in her preferred first-strike tennis, Garcia instead repeatedly attacked the Barty backhand in a bid to break it down, testing the Australian's slice by forcing her into defensive positions. This tactic was largely successful: as in Barty's last loss, to Wang Qiang in the fourth round of the US Open, the 23-year-old lacked her usual touch on her beloved slice, which inevitably found the net in these rallies, but also frequently misfired during more neutral points.
Afterwards, Barty conceded that the shot had been "ineffective" due to the conditions and the way Garcia had neutralized it. "When it got a little bit cooler, the court isn't in the sun any more - it reacts a little bit differently," she explained. "There's not a lot of heat in the ball still. I think it turns into a bit of a floater, a bit of a nothing shot."
Having gone up a break twice but been pegged back both times, Garcia continued to deploy this approach to reel off the final three games of the set, taking her first set point as Barty framed yet another backhand.
The Miami and Birmingham champion prides herself on her ability to problem-solve during matches, though, and that's precisely what she did during the second set - not with any one dramatic, definite turning point, but by gradually plugging away until she found her groove. In contrast to the opening set, it was dominated by the serve: Barty was forced to save three break points in the first game, but having come through that test, would only concede four more points behind her delivery for the rest of the set after raising her first serve percentage from 42% to 64%.
Garcia, too, was largely solid behind her serve, and nine consecutive holds ensued - until, leading 5-4, Barty pounced at the perfect moment. The Australian Open quarterfinalist had gradually been lifting her game, producing her first highlights reel shots of the day with a running forehand down the line and several elegant volleys, and she added another with a pinpoint lob hoisted over Garcia's head which paved the way to a love break to level the match.
The end of the second set and resultant momentum shift had been sudden, and Barty made sure to press it home as the decider got under way. Once again saving a break point in the first game, this time with a dropshot that barely touched the net cord, Barty continued swarming the net to capture the Garcia serve again three games later.
The Nottingham champion had, for one-and-a-half matches this week, seemed as though she had rediscovered her form at the site of one of her greatest triumphs, having been unable to win consecutive matches in 12 tournaments since reaching the Mallorca quarterfinals in June. However, that streak was destined to continue: as Barty's level rose, a flustered Garcia lapsed into easy mistakes as her unforced error count increased to 29 for the match. From 1-1 in the third set, a rampant Barty would rattle through 20 of the last 26 points of the match to seal a brilliant turnaround.
Up next for Barty as she continues her quest to remain World No.1 will be Guangzhou champion and No.15 seed Sofia Kenin, who extended her winning streak to seven with a marathon 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(5) defeat of Elise Mertens in two hours and 22 minutes. Last month, their most recent encounter in the second round of Toronto had gone the American's way 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4, but Barty - who leads the overall head-to-head 3-1 - dismissed the importance of that match.
"Probably take nothing from that last match," she sid. "Different conditions, different balls. I feel like I'm in a better place than I was in Toronto. I feel like I've hit a lot more balls. I'm very much better prepared. In saying that, I have to look at that match and take into account what I didn't do well, what I did do well, and try and bring that into tomorrow as best as I can."