Ashleigh Barty is one victory away from crowning her remarkable season by claiming the biggest winner’s cheque in the history of tennis. The 23-year-old Australian, who won her first Grand Slam title at this summer’s French Open and is guaranteed to finish the year on top of the world rankings, will earn $4,420,000 (about £3.4m) if she beats Elina Svitolina here on Sunday to win the Shiseido WTA Finals.
Svitolina, having won all her group matches at these season-ending championships, would actually win even more by taking the title - $4,725,000 (about £3.7m) – but Barty has been the outstanding player of the year. The world No 1 showed characteristic resilience in fighting back to beat Karolina Pliskova 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in Saturday’s semi-finals, while Svitolina progressed after Belinda Bencic retired hurt when trailing 5-7, 6-3, 4-1.
Barty, nevertheless, will need to improve on her previous performances against Svitolina. The 25-year-old Ukrainian has won all five of their previous meetings, the most recent of which was at Indian Wells earlier this year.
The slow indoor surface at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre has made it hard for the big hitters, but Pliskova has been one of those who have adapted well to the conditions. The world No 2 often had Barty in trouble with the power of her ground strokes, though she had the rare experience of being outaced. Pliskova has hit more aces than any other player on the tour this year but managed only one to Barty’s 11.
Pliskova had plenty of chances but was outplayed on too many of the big points. The 27-year-old Czech had 12 opportunities to break serve but converted only one of them, in the fifth game of the opening set.
The turning point of the match came at 1-1 in the second set as Barty saved four break points. Pliskova dropped her own serve in the following game and again as Barty levelled the match. Serving at 2-3 and deuce in the deciding set, Pliskova double-faulted and was then beaten by Barty’s forehand cross-court winner as the Australian made what proved to be a decisive move.
“The 1-1 game in the second set was massive,” Barty said afterwards. “Being able to dig out of that hole from 0-40 was huge. I think it was just a focus of mine to take the first opportunity I got in the second set.”
Barty, who was presented with her trophy as year-end world No 1 after the match, said that playing in the final would be the perfect way to cap “an incredible year”.
Asked about the record prize money on offer (the previous biggest cheque awarded in tennis was the $3.85m won by Bianca Andreescu and Rafael Nadal at last month’s US Open), Barty said it was a reflection of the progress made by women’s sport.
“For me individually, and I think for all of us players individually, it's not something we think about,” she said. “It's more of kind of a general progression of putting our sport more on the map.I think we have the most beautiful sport. It's a global sport. Now we're getting more attention. I feel like we've earned that.”
Svitolina had been having a moderate season by her standards, but the year-ending championships have once again brought the best out of her. Having won the title last year without losing a match, the 25-year-old Ukrainian took her run at this tournament to 10 wins in a row with a hard-fought victory over Bencic.
The serve is not usually one of Svitolina’s strengths, but on this occasion the world No 8 hit 16 aces. Bencic went for her shots and hit some spectacular winners, but Svitolina played steadily throughout and eventually ground down her opponent.
Bencic was the last player to qualify for the year-end finals and enjoyed an excellent last two months of the season, reaching the US Open semi-finals and winning the title in Moscow to secure her place here.
However, there had been signs that her efforts were catching up with her and her body finally gave out in what proved to be her last match of the season. From the start of the second set Bencic repeatedly called for the trainer to treat cramp in her right leg and eventually threw in the towel after going 4-1 down in the deciding set.
This was the third mid-match retirement here in 14 matches at a tournament where two players, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, pulled out with injury during the round-robin stage.
Bencic said she was exhausted after a long season but added: “I think these courts are terrible for players’ movement and for the muscles because it's like sand. You stop immediately and it goes directly into your muscles. I think since the first practice you can feel that in your body.”
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