The WTA Finals, completed Sunday with Ashleigh Barty locking down the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking, was a rich event in more ways than the record prize money. The event in Shenzhen, China, also produced a number of storylines sure to impact the coming year. Let's look at five of them:
Ashleigh Barty is the real deal
Sure-handed and imperturbable, Barty rose to the occasion in a way that suggests the slight (5-foot-5) but versatile Australian has the game and disposition to be the dominant force in the WTA. Even when her dependable forehand disappeared in the mid-portion of her win over defending champion Elina Svitolina, Barty, as analyst Lindsay Davenport said, "kept her head down and continued to work."
The contrast between rising Barty and collapsing Svitolina near the end of the match was telling, the final result an exoneration of the 23-year-old former prodigy.
Fresh off her maiden Grand Slam win in the French Open, Barty won the title at Birmingham and reached the No. 1 ranking. Much was expected of her at Wimbledon, as grass-court proficiency is in the Aussie DNA, but she faltered in the fourth round against Alison Riske. She lost at that same stage at the US Open to No. 18 Qiang Wang.
The spotlight in the post-Grand Slam season turned to and remained on Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu. Some downgraded the value of Barty's win in Paris, noting that she had met just one other seed en route to the title and a low one at that: No. 14 Madison Keys. Perhaps, like a Jelena Ostapenko or Sloane Stephens, Barty couldn't handle the side effects of success.
The skeptics were wrong. Barty finished 2019 a solid 12-6 against top-10 rivals (7-3 since April). She went semi, final and win in her final three events. Barty has yet to play Andreescu, but she's 2-1 against Osaka since 2018, 2-0 against Karolina Pliskova, 3-2 vs. Petra Kvitova and 1-1 vs. Simona Halep. It's unlikely that Barty will end up a one-slam wonder.
The old order's rapidly fading
Yes, the subhed is borrowed from Bob Dylan's anthem, "The Times They Are A'Changin'". It's relevant to the WTA because time is running out for a number of highly ranked veterans who never climbed through the window of opportunity opened in recent years by the struggles Serena Williams had with injury and, later, childbirth.
Now, the younger generation is threatening to close the shutters and roll down the shades.
The stalwarts in this group are Pliskova, Kvitova, Stephens and Garbine Muguruza, all outstanding if erratic players who have either won Grand Slam titles or held the No. 1 ranking. The women range in age from Stephens and Muguruza, who are 26, to 29-year-old Kvitova. In the big picture, winning two Grand Slam singles titles (which Kvitova and Muguruza both did) is a great achievement. But none of those women has won a major since Stephens claimed the 2017 US Open. They handed the reins to the younger set with little fuss.
Kvitova was derailed by that horrific 2016 home invasion, but even taking that into account the two-time Wimbledon champ continues to be error-prone and inconsistent. She has been close to the No. 1 ranking on at least two occasions (most recently in January) but failed to close the deal both times. She won the last of her two majors in 2014.
Pliskova, the regular-season tour leader for 2018 with 474 aces, enjoyed a brief stint at No. 1. But she sinks instead of rising that critical distance with a big title on the line. Ranked No. 2 for weeks late in the year, and No. 3 for a long stretch in 2019, Pliskova has been to the quarterfinals or better at a major seven times without winning a title.
Pliskova was a tepid 4-4 against top-10 competition this year, losing her only matches with Barty, Osaka and Svitolina. Barty eliminated her in the semifinals in the WTA Finals.
No. 5 Halep also seems vulnerable. Her letter-perfect win over Williams in the upset of the year at Wimbledon is unforgettable. But her best result after that was a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Halep is 28, injury-prone and sometimes seems tired of it all.
Optical issues at the WTA Finals
The year-end championship was celebrated as a high point in the evolution of women's sports. The Chinese hosts mounted a slick production, earning a place in history by offering the greatest amount of prize money ever dispersed at a tour event ($14 million). Barty alone carted off $4.4 million, significantly more than the $3.8 million Rafael Nadal won for securing the US Open title. The total sum was almost twice as much as the ATP will pay its own elite eight in a few weeks in London.
But the WTA's record prize-money figures began to raise eyebrows as the event unfolded. The numbers struck many as excessive to begin with, and only more so when the attendance early in the tournament was spotty. Seen from afar, the atmosphere seemed flat -- a far cry from the energy and standing-room-only crowds the ATP routinely produces at London's O2 Arena.
Then, injury caused withdrawals by four players -- including Osaka, Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and first alternate Kiki Bertens -- and disappointed fans. Through no fault of Barty's, her own paycheck seemed outrageous, part of a tone-deaf endorsement of income inequality, a hot button issue in its own right.
The question of prize money distribution has bubbled up like lava at the ATP Tour, where a rebel faction is calling for radical change so that more money can trickle down to lower-ranked players. Roger Federer himself has said that the pay scale for top players is satisfactory and suggested that the focus in the near future should be on improving the payout for lower-ranked players.
It seemed strange in this climate for the WTA to put so much emphasis on the amount of the purse, especially that outsized winning share. This was the first year of the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. In time, the event might become a more resonant showpiece for the WTA. That would make the astronomical prize money a little palatable.
Will the WTA develop its own Big Three?
Barty is 23. Osaka is 22. Andreescu is just 19. The trio has already accounted for four Grand Slam titles. Federer was well into 22 when he won his first major. Novak Djokovic was over 20 when he bagged his first slam. Nadal, the wunderkind, turned 19 just days before joining the elites with a French Open win.
All in all, the three WTA stars are off to a great start, especially in light of Barty's unusual history. A prodigy, she burned out and left the tour for about a year-and-a-half (during which she tried her hand at pro cricket at home) and returned to the WTA fold in February 2016. She wasn't a newcomer to the WTA's year-end championships, having taken part as a doubles player in Singapore in 2017.
Osaka has struggled in the middle of the year, but she came on with newfound fury after a dispiriting loss to Bencic in the fourth round of the US Open. She won the Pan Pacific Open in Osaka, Japan. In one of the best matches of the year, a China Open quarterfinal, she eliminated Andreescu. Osaka went on to win that event over Barty.
"It meant a lot to me," she told reporters after stopping Andreescu. "I kind of feel like people counted me out after the Europe thing. I'm just, like, I still won a slam this year [the Australian Open], I won [in Osaka]. I'm still here."
Andreescu put together a dream year between injuries, capped with a stunning win at the US Open. Her high-quality clash with Osaka had people talking about the "rivalry of the future."
We'll see what Barty -- and other young players -- say about that.
What could go wrong in 2020?
Injury might be the main threat facing the WTA Tour in the coming year. It also might be the factor that continues to prevent dominant players from emerging on the tour.
Lost amid all the armchair psychology triggered by Osaka's mid-season slump in 2019 was the role played by injuries to a knee and thumb. As ESPN analyst Pam Shriver put it in an interview: "She was not always healthy enough [this year] to play her power game to her top ability."
As the fall season began, a healthy Osaka declared she was on a mission to "dominate" in the post-US Open phase. She reeled off 11 consecutive wins and earned two titles during that period. But a shoulder injury forced her to withdraw from the WTA Finals following an opening win in the round-robin portion over Kvitova.
The only qualifier when it comes to Andreescu's future prospects is her durability. She's just 5-foot-7, but she's a naturally strong, powerfully built player. Yet injuries have already shadowed her days from even before her breakthrough win at Indian Wells. Overcoming early career back troubles, she became an overnight sensation at Indian Wells in March. By early April she was off the tour, gone for two months due to a right shoulder injury. She joined Osaka on the sidelines in Shenzhen after an opening round-robin loss, citing a sore knee.
The older generation has had better luck staying healthy, although Halep has known her share of woes, and hand surgery carved a good six months off Kvitova's career. Keys, while still just 24, is yet another frustrated contender whose career has been slowed by injury.
Barty has proven sturdy, and that might play a significant role in the battle for supremacy in 2020. Lest she or any of her peers grow complacent, even younger talents like Sofia Kenin, Aryna Sabalenka, Amanda Anisimova and perhaps even Coco Gauff will be challenging obstacles in the coming years.