WTA Finals confirms what was suspected: Ash Barty was the best of 2019

WTA Finals confirms what was suspected: Ash Barty was the best of 2019

In recent years, the WTA's season finale has given us surprise winners, but that wasn't the case in Shenzhen this time around.

“It’s been a year of incredible ups and downs—I think more ups than downs,” Ash Barty said after her 6-4, 6-3 win over Elina Svitolina in the final of the WTA’s year-end championships on Sunday. “To cap it off with a very, very special night tonight in Shenzhen is really cool.”

“More ups than downs”: Does that sound a little, well…modest, coming from a player who had the season Barty just had? Someone who finished No. 1, after never being ranked higher than No. 15 before 2019; who won her first Grand Slam title, at Roland Garros, after never making the semifinals at any major before; who won the WTA Finals, after never qualifying for the event before; who had led Australia to its first Fed Cup final since 1993; and who walked away from Shenzhen with a record $4.42 million champion’s check for her efforts?

Well, Barty is a naturally modest person. In her victory speech, she began by praising Svitolina, moved on to call her coaching team “the best in the world,” thanked the fans and sponsors, and never got around to talking much about herself. Barty’s not a bask-in-the-applause type. In the first set, she scrambled forward to track down a Svitolina drop shot, and angled a perfect backhand off her shoe-tops for her winner. Instead of raising her fist or shouting “Come on!”, as most pros would, Barty celebrated by staring down at the court and quickly walking back to the baseline. If anything, she slumped her shoulders even more than she usually does, as if she were embarrassed by the attention.

But Barty’s assessment of her season as “up and down” wasn’t just a case of her being overly humble; there was a grain of truth to it, too. Since moving up to No. 1 after her title run in Birmingham in June, she had failed to win a tournament. She had made fourth-round exits, to much-lower-ranked players, at Wimbledon and the US Open, and had lost to her rival for the top spot, Naomi Osaka, in the Beijing final after winning the first set. She had even lost a match in the round-robin stage in Shenzhen, to Kiki Bertens.

 

All of that was enough to make some observers—or at least this observer—wonder if Barty was cut out to be a long-term No. 1. At 5-foot-5, she can’t rely on overwhelming power to save her when she’s a little off, the way some top players can. To be successful, Barty has to have all of her many, varied skills working in tandem. Also, modesty is not a trait that’s typically associated with champions in any sport; when you win all the time, you tend to start believing you should keep winning all the time. In that sense, maybe it’s a good sign that Barty acknowledged some disappointment with her season. Maybe she’s starting to believe she should be winning titles consistently. Maybe finishing 2019 with victories over four of the WTA’s Top 8 will raise her expectations for herself even higher.

Barty will likely never be a big personality, but that doesn’t mean her appeal won’t grow if she remains at the top. It’s an appeal that, like her friend and fellow Aussie No. 1 Evonne Goolagong’s, will be based around her seemingly effortless mastery of the game.

The Shenzhen final was competitive; both sets were tight until the end. But Barty still appeared to be playing rings around Svitolina. Usually, when we say one player is “doing all the running,” it means that player is losing. Not with Barty; the more she ran today—from alley to alley and baseline to net—the better she did. “In full flight” is a term we usually reserve for Roger Federer, but it can also apply to Barty, who plays with the same light footprint and tactical clarity as the Swiss. Barty is that rare hybrid: an offensive-minded player who excels at defense; a shotmaker and a speedster.

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On one point against Svitolina, Barty ran beyond the doubles alley to retrieve a shot, but still made it all the way back to the other singles alley to retrieve the next one. On another point, she began with a brilliant defensive slice backhand down the line; followed that with a forehand approach into the other corner; and finished the rally by leaning back and easily executing an overhead that would have been tricky for most other players. With her flat and kick serves, her one-handed and two-handed backhands, and her handiness at net, Barty lets us see more of the game, and what it can contain, than virtually any other player on either tour.

“Tonight it felt like it was a lot more clear, a lot more concise from my end,” said Barty, who had lost all five of her previous meetings to Svitolina. “I took my opportunities when I got them…I think it was also important for me to move forward, then try to bring Elina in a few times as well, which worked really well.”

It’s rare to hear a player cite two opposing ideas—come to net, and bring the opponent the net—as part of a single strategic plan. But Barty has that ability.

Up, back, two-handed, one-handed, slice, topspin, flat, kick, attack, retrieve: Like a walking tennis textbook, Barty made it all look easy and logical on Sunday, and finished her “up and down” 2019 on a fittingly high note. In recent years, the WTA Finals has given us surprise winners, and a hint of bigger titles to come for some players. This year it confirmed what we already suspected about this season: Barty was the best.