The top two players in the world go head-to-head at the WTA Finals on Saturday as Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova battle for a spot in the final in Shenzhen.
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World No. 1, Barty is looking to reach the championship match of the Finals in her debut appearance in the women’s singles, while second-ranked Pliskova is looking to go one step further than the semi-final finishes she managed in each of the last two seasons.
Barty finished top of the Red Group with a 2-1 win-loss record, while Pliskova, despite compiling an identical 2-1 record was second in the Purple Group behind defending champion, Elina Svitolina. Barty opened her campaign with a three-set win over Belinda Bencic, but the Australian was pegged back in her second match against alternate Kiki Bertens, falling 3-6 6-3 6-4 to the Dutchwoman, who had come in as a late replacement for the injured Naomi Osaka.
Needing to beat Petra Kvitova in her final group match to guarantee her passage into the last four, the top seed delivered a competent performance to pull off a 6-4 6-2 victory, scoring her third consecutive win over Kvitova in the process. The 23-year-old Barty is looking to round off a stunning year with victory in Shenzhen, having already captured a maiden major title at Roland Garros, a first Premier Mandatory triumph in Miami and another title in Birmingham.
Barty also made finals in Sydney and Beijing (lost to Kvitova and Osaka respectively) while she reached semi-finals in Cincinnati, Wuhan, and now Shenzhen. The Australian is already guaranteed to end the year as the No. 1 player in the world, notwithstanding how the rest of the weekend in Shenzhen pans out.
Can the Australian move into her sixth final in 2019 with victory over Pliskova on Saturday?
Pliskova advanced to the last four in Shenzhen with a thrilling victory over Simona Halep in a rollercoaster final group match on Friday, outlasting the Romanian 6-0 2-6 6-4 to move into the semis for the third consecutive season.
The Czech made a blistering start, bageling Halep on the back of some fine serving and fierce returning, but Halep worked her way into the contest in the second set, altering her return position and cutting down on the unforced errors to turn the tables on Pliskova. The Wimbledon champion won six games in a row from 2-2 in the second set, and appeared to have all the momentum at 2-0 in the final set, but she allowed Pliskova back in with a loose fourth game, and the Czech obliged with a break back for 2-2. Pliskova then battled through multiple deuces to hold for 3-2 in what turned out to be a pivotal fifth game, closing the game with consecutive down the line winners- one off the backhand for game point and the other with the forehand to seal the hold.
That seemed to puncture Halep’s challenge, and Pliskova pressed home her advantage and quickly established a 5-2 lead. The see-saw battle threatened to take another turn when the Czech dropped her serve to love while serving for the match at 5-3, but she broke in the next game to get the win, sealing victory when her forehand caught the net cord and dropped in Halep’s half of the court.
“I think overall was a good match,” said Pliskova, during her post-match press conference. “I think a little bit up and down from both of us. But that’s how it is sometimes.”
“It’s the last push… That’s why maybe I’m doing so well. If there is maybe two or three more weeks after, maybe I’m not doing so well. Right now I’m giving everything I have.”
Pliskova has already won a tour-leading four titles this season, excelling in Brisbane, Rome, Eastbourne and Zhengzhou. She was runner-up in Miami, and a semi-finalist at the Australian Open in her other stand-out results from a fine campaign. She continues to be without a Grand Slam, but she can close out the season by lifting her biggest career title in Shenzhen this weekend.
The road to Shenzhen glory remains very tough, as she must first surmount Ashleigh Barty in the semis on Saturday before a potential final against either Svitolina or Bencic.
Pliskova trails Barty 2-3 in their head-to-head, and was beaten 7-6 6-3 in their most recent encounter in the Miami final- also their only previous meeting in 2019.
“Of course, she’s World No.1, it’s going to be extremely difficult,” Pliskova admitted, ahead of Saturday’s match. “She’s also great on this surface. It suits her well. We did practice last week. It’s not impossible. Of course, my goal now is to go little bit more than last two years.”
Pliskova will again have to be at her aggressive best on Saturday- serve well and try to dominate with her big groundstrokes- but it will not be easy, as Barty, unlike Halep, has got a very useful serve, heavy forehand, as well as the much vaunted backhand slice which will make things extremely awkward for Pliskova.
I’ve gone against Pliskova a lot in this tournament (and she has kept winning for most part!), and I will have to do it again as I feel Barty is playing very well, and should have a bit too much variety for the Czech.
Ashleigh Barty vs Karolina Pliskova is live from Shenzhen on Saturday, 2 November from 8:00pm local time/ 12:00pm GMT