A Surprising WTA Finals Victory Mirrors the Year in Women’s Tennis

Caroline Garcia, ranked just 79th in May, won the season-ending championship and will finish at No. 4 in a year that saw Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty retire.

FORT WORTH — A sometimes shocking women’s tennis season neared an end here on Monday night with Caroline Garcia’s unexpected victory at the WTA Finals — one more surprise in a year full of them.

In May, Garcia was ranked 79th in the world and was still recovering from chronic foot problems that had forced her to switch to a different brand of shoe. But the French veteran will finish the season at No. 4 after winning the biggest singles title of her career with a convincing victory, 7-6 (4), 6-4, over Aryna Sabalenka on Monday that capped a resurgent second half of the season.

“I came from way back this year,” Garcia said in an interview near midnight conducted with one of her prizes — a new cowboy hat — perched on her head. “I would never have thought I’d be here today, but it was really a day-by-day project, and I progressively got more confident in my game again, and I started feeling better and better physically.”

She needed all her quickness and agility to prevail in this elite tournament reserved for the top eight singles players. After losing in group play to tournament favorite Iga Swiatek, this year’s runaway No. 1, Garcia came within two points of elimination before winning her last round-robin match against Daria Kasatkina, a resourceful Russian who can defend brilliantly and likes to loop forehands and shift spins and paces.

Sabalenka, a six-foot tower of power from Belarus with a large tiger tattoo on her left forearm, posed an entirely different challenge in Monday’s high-velocity final, which was full of big serves, full-cut winners and Sabalenka’s thunderous grunts. The margin for error was minimal, with both women ripping shots low over the net. Long rallies were rarer than aces and quick-strike groundstroke winners, and yet given Garcia’s yen for positioning herself inside the baseline and rushing the net, it was an eye-catching contrast in styles.

An only child and self-described introvert, Garcia plays extroverted tennis: bold and often spectacular as she pounces on short balls and lunges to punch volleys or use her soft hands to generate more acute angles.

“It’s true that being really sure of yourself in sports is an important factor,” she said. “But I think over the years I’ve become more mature and am more at ease with my mentality on the court, which is quite a bit different than who I am off the court, which is rather timid and reserved. It’s true I sometimes have had trouble harmonizing these two parts of my personality, but tennis helps you learn a lot about yourself, and I’ve gotten better at it this year.”

Though her game is high-risk, it translates to different surfaces. She was the only WTA player to win titles on clay, grass and hardcourts this year and also won the WTA Finals on the indoor court in Dickies Arena. She is the second Frenchwoman to win the season-ending singles championship since its inception in 1972, joining Amélie Mauresmo, the 2005 champion who also liked to attack and won her title in the United States.

Mauresmo’s came in Los Angeles, Garcia’s in Fort Worth — a city she had barely heard of before the WTA announced it as the host less than two months before the tournament after it was moved from Shenzhen, China.

“All I knew about was the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport,” Garcia said.

But her first trip to Texas turned out to be a joyride, and Monday was so transcendent that she neglected to do her trademark “Fly with Caro” airplane celebration in victory.

“It’s true! You’re right!” she said later when asked about it. “There was just so much emotion that I completely forgot the airplane. I’ll have to do it at the hotel or tomorrow.”

Garcia’s run in Fort Worth came despite splitting with her coach Bertrand Perret, a key figure in Garcia’s revival. Perret quit shortly before the WTA Finals.

“These last few weeks, there have been problems, and they ended up ruining the atmosphere,” he told L’Équipe, the French sports publication. “I do this job for pleasure and there was less of it.”

Perret did not elaborate other than to say he had no problem with Garcia herself.

Instead of folding, Garcia quickly rebuilt, arriving at the WTA Finals with a coaching consultant, Juan Pablo Guzman, and her parents, Louis-Paul and Mylène; Louis-Paul, long the architect of his daughter’s career, served again as the principal coach for the week.

“Of course it was unexpected and complicated to handle,” Caroline Garcia said of Perret’s resignation. “I tried to rebound and keep in mind all the good memories we made this year and all we had worked on.”

Much has changed this year in the women’s game. The season began with Ashleigh Barty entrenched at No. 1 after winning her home Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, in January.

In March, without playing another match, Barty shocked the tennis world by announcing her retirement from competition at age 25. Though ruling out a comeback seems imprudent considering how many tennis retirements have come undone through the decades, Barty insisted this week that she meant it. “You can never say never, but no,” she said of a comeback in an interview in Melbourne with the Australian Associated Press. “No, no, no. I’m done.”

This was also the year that Serena Williams, now 41, likely bid farewell to the game that she once dominated, playing in her farewell U.S. Open and showing flashes of long-ago form in reaching the third round.

Garcia made her deepest run yet at a major in that event, advancing to the U.S. Open semifinals before losing to Ons Jabeur in straight sets. Though Garcia had struggled to recapture that form in recent weeks, she said she used her U.S. Open disappointment for fuel in Fort Worth.

“I think that experience served me well today,” Garcia said.

She served magnificently in the final, never facing a break point and repeatedly coming up with aces and service winners on pivotal points to keep Sabalenka, a streaky and aggressive returner, from building momentum.

Garcia, ranked just 79th in May, will finish the season No. 4.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Garcia’s toughest service game came last, but though Sabalenka saved a match point with a backhand winner and pushed Garcia to deuce, Sabalenka could not generate a break point. When Sabalenka’s last forehand missed, Garcia tumbled to the court with delight while Sabalenka smacked her racket twice in anger on the indoor court. She embraced Garcia at the net and then took a seat, covered her head with a white towel and sobbed at length.

Though she began the year ranked No. 2 in the world, Sabalenka failed to win a tournament in 2022 and was banned from Wimbledon, like all players from Russia and Belarus, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The WTA Tour took a more inclusive tack, allowing those players to compete as neutrals, and they had a strong finish in Fort Worth, with Veronika Kudermetova of Russia teaming up with Elise Mertens of Belgium to win the women’s doubles title.

The war continues, but Steve Simon, the WTA chairman and chief executive, said the tour intends to keep the door open for Russian and Belarusian players to compete as individuals in 2023 and will push for Wimbledon to restore access, as well.

“We can’t condemn strongly enough the reprehensible actions of Russia against Ukraine,” Simon said. “But we will continue to stand for that principle, which is that our athletes need to be able to compete if they qualify for entry, irrespective of where they’re from.”

Russia and Belarus are banned from team competitions, however, meaning that Sabalenka’s and Kudermetova’s seasons are over. Garcia will return to France to play in a playoff for the Billie Jean King Cup against the Netherlands, with matches in Le Portel on Friday and Saturday.

She might not take off her cowboy hat until then.

“It’s a nice souvenir,” she said Monday night. “And I got one just after I arrived here, so now I have two.”

Source: Tennis -


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