Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka go head-to-head in a WTA Finals blockbuster on Tuesday as they battle for the leadership of the Red Group in Shenzhen.
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It’s a repeat of their Beijing final from earlier in the month, which Osaka won in three sets to claim her third title of the year, and extend her winning streak to 10 matches. That streak has since been stretched to 11 following her victory over Petra Kvitova in her opening match of the WTA Finals on Sunday.
Like Osaka, Barty also opened her tournament with a three-set win on Sunday, battling back from behind to beat Belinda Bencic- hence, the winner of Tuesday’s contest will take a giant step towards securing a semi-final berth at the season-ending tournament.
Barty and Osaka were locked in a captivating battle for No. 1 ranking all year, with Osaka holding the ranking for a cumulative 25 weeks in 2019, and Barty occupying the zenith of the women’s game for 15 weeks, but it is Barty who will finish in the year-end No. 1 spot (as long as she steps on court on Tuesday for her match against Osaka).
“It certainly wasn’t something that was in my realm at the start of the year,” Barty said of finishing the year at No. 1. “First and foremost, we’d love to finish off the week here really strongly, then we can worry about celebrating that little thing. Very, very cool for myself, my team. The amount of work and effort we all put in, it does take a village. I have an incredible team of people around me. I think this is more for them than for me.”
Barty slipped into some trouble in her opening match against Bencic, but she responded magnificently to the loss of the opening set, winning 12 of the next 15 games to pull off a 5-7 6-1 6-2 victory in her singles debut at the WTA Finals.
“It’s important to notice what’s not working, what is working, adjust the game plan accordingly,” said Barty after her comeback win. “I think in particular for tonight, it was important in the first two or three games in the second set to try to reset the tone. I was able to do that with my first service game, first return game, and roll on from there”.
The world No. 1 improves to 48-11 in an outstanding season during which she has won a maiden major title at Roland Garros, a first Premier Mandatory crown in Miami, and another title in Birmingham. She was a beaten finalist in Sydney and Beijing, while she made semi-finals in Cincinnati and Wuhan in a supremely consistent campaign.
Next up for the world No. 1 is Naomi Osaka, with the outright leadership of the Red Group on the line.
Osaka withstood a fightback from Petra Kvitova to pull off a 7-6 3-6 6-4 victory over the two-time Wimbledon champion in her opening match, registering her first ever match win at the WTA Finals.
The Japanese lost all of her three matches in her debut appearance at the Finals last season (in Singapore), but she finally got off the mark on Sunday, holding her composure to outlast Kvitova in a hard-fought duel.
In a repeat of January’s Australian Open final, won by Osaka, Kvitova made a rapid start in Shenzhen, breaking early and establishing a 4-2 lead, but Osaka reeled her in, helped out by a series of Kvitova double faults to break back for 4-4, before playing a near-flawless tie break to take the opening set.
Kvitova snatched a late to take a see-saw second set, but Osaka regrouped and accelerated away in the decider, breaking twice to race out to a 5-2 lead. There was a little hiccup towards the end, as Kvitova saved two match points and broke back when Osaka first served for the match, but the Japanese star made no mistake at the second time of asking closing out the win to record her 11th straight victory.
That streak began in Osaka and continued in Beijing, as she claimed her second and third titles of the season in those tournaments. She had grabbed the first at January’s Australian Open, capturing her second major title, and rising to No. 1 in the rankings as a result.
Osaka did not cope as well with the pressure of being the No. 1 player in the world, as she made just one semi-final in the twelve tournaments following the Australian Open, but she has been playing with renewed freedom and confidence in the last few weeks, making her one of the hot favourites for this week’s title in Shenzhen.
She will look to make a big statement in that regard when she confronts the No. 1 player in the world on Tuesday.
Osaka and Barty have split their previous four matches, with Osaka winning their most recent encounter in Beijing earlier this month. Both players share certain similarities, as they both rely heavily on their serves and forehands, but while Osaka will attempt to overpower the world No. 1, Barty will look to unsettle the Australian Open champion with her famed variety, especially the backhand slice and her forecourt skills.
It’s a budding rivalry that looks set to charm the tour in the coming years- who will edge ahead in Shenzhen on Tuesday?
Ashleigh Barty vs Naomi Osaka is live from Shenzhen on Tuesday, 29 October from 6:30pm local time/ 10:30am BST