FORT WORTH, Texas — Caroline Garcia was talking to members of her team Monday morning at a downtown coffee shop when Aryna Sabalenka and her entourage walked through the door, surrounded by a three-person Netflix film crew. Their eyes never met.
Ten hours later, the current semi-finalists of the US Open will meet in the most important match of their lives.
Garcia won the WTA Finals Championship match 7-6 (4), 6-4, collecting $1.57 million and 1,375 ranking points. And another proof that this new aggressive, advanced game suits her best.
“It’s definitely a lot of luck,” Garcia said in the postgame press conference. “A crazy final, a lot of intensity in every point. We are really proud of the work we have done throughout the year. It was a great match — it really worked. I’m really happy to win my biggest title.
In the end, the two players were disarmingly true to the form they’ve shown throughout the 2022 season. Garcia, who led all Hologic WTA Tour players in aces, served 11 — 10 in the first set alone — and didn’t face a break point. Sabalenka, for whom double faults were a terrible vulnerability, hit two of her three in the critical first-set tiebreak.
That was the difference.
“I just dropped a little bit,” Sabalenka said at the press conference after the match. “In the tiebreak and the first game of the second set. That’s it.
“I did my best, [but] she played incredible tennis.”
Garcia, a 29-year-old from France, has won every final she’s played in this year, and eight out of nine six years ago.
In the fall of 2017, in the space of two weeks, Garcia achieved a career breakthrough by winning the WTA 1000 tournaments in Wuhan and Beijing, and all 11 matches. This took her to the Top 10 for the first time, as well as to the WTA finals in Singapore. She just turned 24. Garcia won two of three matches, but lost to Venus Williams in the semifinals.
When those points dropped a year later, Garcia dropped out of the Top 10 for nearly four years. A debilitating string of injuries left her languishing in the mid-70s in June. Then she decided to rededicate herself to this style of early game.
Composure, Garcia said, was the key.
“I’m very happy with the way of thinking, to be really calm at all times,” she said. “All those negative emotions don’t affect me, and that was a big part of taking advantage of the few opportunities I had in the tiebreak and the first game to break it in the second.”
As Maria Sakkari noted after losing to Garcia in the semifinals, nobody plays like Garcia. She works with excellent timing, rushing opponents. But the downside is the extremely narrow margin for error, a hit-or-miss calculation that can easily go haywire. Healthy again, Garcia started winning and never stopped.
She should have qualified, but she won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, reached the semifinals of the US Open, her first career major, and qualified for Fort Worth. Five years later, in a sport that sometimes moves at the speed of timelapse photography, she took a rare second chance to be a star among stars.
For Sabalenka, she was a regular in the Top 10 for the better part of four years. Her wild base strength, when under control, is terrifying. However, she faced serving problems all season.
In her first match of the season in Adelaide, Sabalenka, then ranked No. 2 in the world, made 18 double faults in a loss to Kaja Juvan, ranked No. 100. The second one was worse. Sabalenka’s loss to Rebecca Peterson (No. 93) included a whopping 21 double faults. Entering the final, Sabalenka had 425 double faults. No other player finished the year in the 300s.
This week, Sabalenka stabilized some of the bleeding and came to terms with her lackluster service game. She has “a lot of experience playing without a serve,” but in retrospect, it’s possible that that disadvantage forced her to strengthen other parts of her game.
In the first 12 games of the first set against Garcia, Sabalenka was nearly flawless on serve. There was only one double fault — and she actually won a higher percentage of her second serve than her first serve. But in the tiebreak, two errant backhands cornered Sabalenka and those nerves produced two double faults.
The second ended the set and, indeed, her chances of victory — especially when Garcia broke her to open the second set. It was the only break ball in the match.
“I’m not going to say thank you to my team because there are so many double faults, you’re such a bad team — no, no, no, just kidding,” Sabalenka said.
And then she became emotional, her tears flowed. “It was a year full of challenges for us,” said Sabalenka. “Thank you so much for your support.”
Garcia was also touched by the match. He would finish the year in 4th place, tying his career best.
“Sometimes you get emotional or things don’t go your way,” Garcia said. “I mean, sometimes there’s a big fight, so you have to find your way through it. Some points where you can do nothing. You just try to throw a comeback and run as fast as you can to the other side.
“And that was one of the biggest things I improved on. Today one of the most important things was to stay calm and take advantage of every opportunity.”