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Ash Barty’s star shines brightly at WTA Finals as she reaches semis

An already stellar season for Ashleigh Barty got even better when the Australian advanced to the semifinals at the women’s year-end tennis championships by downing familiar foe Petra Kvitova in straight sets.

Barty started the year 15th but rocketed up the rankings after making a maiden grand slam quarterfinal on home soil, winning the Miami Open and earning a first major at the French Open.

Following a title on her favorite surface of grass in Birmingham, England in June, Barty became the first Australian woman to top the rankings since her mentor, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, in 1976.

Barty later relinquished the No. 1 spot but got it back in September and even before Thursday’s action in Shenzhen, China knew she would end the season there.

That all looked unlikely when she stepped away from the game in 2014 and turned to cricket, prior to returning in 2016.

Already awarded the prestigious “Don” Award in Australia earlier in October — named after cricket great Don Bradman and given to the country’s top sportsperson — Barty figures, too, to claim a third straight Newcombe Medal as Australia’s best tennis player.

By that time, Barty might have led Australia to a first Fed Cup team title since 1974, given that the Aussies host France in the final in Perth next month.

For the time being the 23-year-old ensured a continuation of her stint in China by beating the dual Wimbledon champion 6-4 6-2 in the pair’s fifth meeting of 2019. Power baseliner Kvitova won the first two — including in Melbourne in January — but Barty and her all-court game have grabbed the last three.

“I think playing against Petra is probably one of my favorite things to do, if I’m being honest,” Barty was quoted as saying by the WTA. “Win or lose, it’s going to be a great match. It’s going to be played in the right spirit. I just enjoy the challenge of playing against Petra. She really does bring out the best in me.

“It’s a challenge that I love. It’s a challenge that I thrive on. I think each time I’ve played Petra, I’ve become a better player having learned what’s happened during that match.”

At 0-2, Kvitova needed a victory to have any chance of progressing from the Red Group at the WTA Finals while Barty was assured of going through with a win.

Losing tight first sets proved to be Kvitova’s undoing against Naomi Osaka and Belinda Bencic — who progressed later Thursday as the runner-up in the group after alternate Kiki Bertens retired — and a close first set went against the Czech once again.

Kvitova appeared to lose steam when, trailing 3-2 in the first, she couldn’t capitalize on three break points to get back on serve. Barty raced to a 4-0 advantage in the much more routine second set.

Unfortunately for Kvitova, she was never able to regain top form after suffering a forearm injury during the clay-court swing. Kvitova began 2019 by making the Australian Open final, her first grand slam final since a knife attack in her home in 2016 almost ended her career — and life.

Another retirement

The end of season finale for the women has been beset by injuries.

Osaka played one match before withdrawing due to a shoulder injury, Bencic was treated for a foot injury against Barty on Sunday, US Open winner Bianca Andreescu pulled out of the event Thursday with the knee injury that forced her to retire against Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday, while Bertens was the latest to be struck down.

The Dutchwoman had only just entered the tournament Tuesday as a replacement for Osaka.

Dropping the first set after leading 5-3 in her tour-leading 81st match of the season, the trainer and doctor visited Bertens. After having her pulse and blood pressure checked, she walked over to Bencic and retired.

“Five weeks ago, I said to myself, ‘You’re completely dead.’ I guess now I’m almost there,” Bertens, due to get married in the off-season, told reporters, according to the WTA.

“Every day I said, ‘Okay, just give it one more time.’ I know for myself I gave absolutely everything.”

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Only one semifinal place remains, going to the winner of Simona Halep’s clash with Pliskova on Friday. Defending champion Elina Svitolina has already booked her spot in the last four but instead of meeting Andreescu, will take on second alternate Sofia Kenin of the US.

Svitolina is the lone player remaining who can finish undefeated and thus claim a record $4.725 million paycheck.

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