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WTA Finals — Ashleigh Barty redraws the boundaries of tennis history

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

The fact that Belinda Bencic took a medical timeout in Sunday’s WTA Finals match offered a simple reminder about Ashleigh Barty’s situation as she arrived in Shenzhen, China: Barty had to avoid injury at this tournament. As long as she did, history was going to be made… but life offers no guarantees.

Recall Kiki Bertens having to retire from Roland Garros (in the second round) as one of the favorites for this year’s clay-court major. She had to retire just a handful of games into her match.

Yes, Ashleigh Barty was likely to make history, but the Bencic medical timeout felt like a ghost hovering over her shoulder.

Now, that ghost can go away.

In a match whose competitive quality was defined by that medical timeout — what happened before and after it — the main takeaway was not so much the tennis, but Barty’s achievement, which is a gigantic feat in the history of this sport.

Chris Evert. Martina Navratilova. Steffi Graf. Monica Seles.

Martina Hingis. Lindsay Davenport. Serena Williams. Justine Henin.

Jelena Jankovic. Caroline Wozniacki. Victoria Azarenka. Angelique Kerber. Simona Halep.

In chronological order, those are the first 13 women to be the year-end No. 1 player on the WTA Tour since the category was created in 1975.

Evert was the first year-end No. 1 on the WTA Tour.

Navratilova’s first year-end No. 1 ranking came in 1978.

Graf: 1987. Seles: 1991. Hingis: 1997. Davenport: 1998.

Serena: 2002. Henin: 2003. Jankovic: 2008.

Wozniacki: 2010. Azarenka: 2012. Kerber: 2016. Halep: 2017.

Take a look at those 13 women. They all came from either Europe or the United States. (Navratilova and Seles, among others, began their careers as representatives of European countries and ended their careers as American citizens.)

It is true that Australia is an old-school tennis nation, one of the four Grand Slam countries and also one of the two longtime Davis Cup and Fed Cup powers with very deep roots in the sport. Yet, while owning an old-school identity, Australia also represents the global reach of the sport.

The branding of the Australian Open has consciously focused on — in recent years — embracing the identity of Asia and the Pacific. The emergence of China’s Li Na as an Australian Open contender and a highly popular player — a finalist in 2011 and 2013, then a champion in 2014 — had at least something to do with that development.

One of the main things women’s tennis needed to confirm the reality of the sport’s global identity was to have a year-end World No. 1 WTA player outside the United States and Europe.

Enter Ashleigh Barty.

Her win over Bencic in Shenzhen has made it official: Barty has become the first year-end World No. 1 player from a new part of the globe, breaking the Europe-U.S. stranglehold which had existed for the previous 44 women’s tennis seasons.

Naomi Osaka might follow Barty in future seasons. Osaka would become Japan’s and Asia’s first year-end World No. 1 if she can achieve the feat.

Bianca Andreescu could become the first Canadian to attain year-end World No. 1 and expand the reach of tennis in North America.

On and on, the sense of possibility in tennis is expanding. You can feel it.

You know that young women all over the globe are noting these new feats and saying to themselves — in places outside Europe and the United States — that “I can make history for my country and my part of the globe.”

Welcome to a brand new world… and a brand-new era in the history of year-end World No. 1 women’s tennis players.

Ashleigh Barty will always have Roland Garros. She will always have this seminal achievement in tennis history — and Australian sports — as well.

A proud tennis nation and a different part of the planet now own an achievement which has redrawn the boundaries of history.

That isn’t hyperbole. That is a simple declaration of the enormity of what Ash Barty accomplished in 2019.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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