Talented young things Caroline Garcia and Ash Barty were all the rage when they last met in the US Open juniors back in 2011: Barty as the 15-year-old Wimbledon girls’ champion, and Garcia as the subject of a famous Andy Murray tweet at Roland Garros predicting that the wildcard who took a set from Maria Sharapova would eventually be No.1. “What a player, u heard it here first.”
Both have had their struggles along the challenging road to fulfilling their senior potential. Barty took a well-documented 20-month hiatus from 2014-16 and is only now working towards full fitness after negotiating some injury hurdles upon her return last year. Garcia, meanwhile, had hovered for several seasons in the 20s and 30s, but only now has broken into the top 15.
On Saturday night at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, the two finals first-timers at WTA Premier 5 level duelled for two hours and 44 minutes before Garcia prevailed 6-7(3), 7-6 (4), 6-2 for her fourth – and biggest – singles title. For Barty, a career-best week ended with a world ranking of 23rd and three new top 10 scalps, but one win short.
“I’ve had some of my best results. Played arguably some of my best tennis ever,’’ said Barty. “Disappointed tonight. But I put myself in a position where I was really close to come away with a title. You got to keep putting yourself in these positions to come away with it. Tonight it didn’t fall my way.’’
Barty’s coach, Craig Tyzzer, noted his charge fatiguing from the middle of the second set after a demanding week, and realised the importance of her failure to twice serve out the match in straight sets. Garcia was aggressively attacking the world No.37’s flagging serve, and starting to punish the slice backhand that had worked so well earlier in the match. For the Frenchwoman, what had started with a first round comeback from a set down against Angelique Kerber appeals as a potentially significant breakthrough.
“Like maybe a few months ago, maybe even a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t find the energy to come back and the focus to stay in the match,’’ said Garcia, who had twice been unable to serve out the first set, and nominated her hold of serve to stay in touch at 1-2 in the second as a key.
Friendly foes, and two of the nicer characters in the women’s game played the match in fine spirit, even as Garcia broke free from the arm-wrestle to dominate in the third. “Today was difficult lost for her, but she stayed very respectful,’’ the 23-year-old said of Barty. “She didn’t show any emotion, even bad ones. Outside she’s very nice, always smiling, always call you ‘mate’ every single time. She’s definitely very funny.
“I mean, it’s a pleasure to fight against her on court. I’m very happy she came back to tennis. The tour definitely needs someone as talented as her. What she been through is very difficult, I guess, but I’m glad she decide to came back to tennis. We’ll have so many more battle in the future. It will be such a fight.’’
This time, Garcia won the biggest tournament by a Frenchwoman since Marion Bartoli’s 2013 Wimbledon success, while Barty fell just short of claiming the most significant singles title by an Australian woman since Sam Stosur’s triumph at the 2011 US Open.
Until the final, a theme of Barty’s week had been her ability to find a way: from 3-5 down in the third set against Johanna Konta in the second round; from a set behind against second-seeded Karolina Pliskova and Agnieszka Radwanska, the No.9.
While she could not emulate her beloved Richmond’s achievement in the AFL grand final that she had watched from her hotel bed earlier in the day, Barty had nevertheless enjoyed an outstanding week that has carried her to within one spot and 100 points of Daria Gavrilova as the Australian No.1. She started 2017 at 271st.
“This year’s been just amazing,’’ said Barty, who has already qualified in doubles for the WTA Finals in Singapore and is a likely starter in singles at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai the following week. “We’ve had a really good year and a really consistent year. It’s just another big week and another final for us, which is really exciting.’’
As, she thinks, is Garcia’s future, with this a likely springboard. “It’s really nice to see her having success. Just sort of starting to see the tip of the iceberg where she’s going to end up in her career.’’
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