SHENZHEN (AFP, REUTERS) - In-form Naomi Osaka outlasted Petra Kvitova in a three-set marathon for a drought-breaking victory at the WTA Finals on Sunday (Oct 27).
Opening the US$14 million (S$19.1 million) round-robin tennis tournament, the first in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the world No. 3 regrouped from several lethargic stretches to win 7-6 (7-1), 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and 39 minutes.
It was the Japanese sensation's first victory at the WTA Finals after a winless campaign in her debut appearance last year in Singapore and stretched her current winning streak to 11 matches having claimed titles in Osaka and Beijing.
"She started going hard at me from the beginning and I just had to adjust to it," Osaka said after the match.
In the later match, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty battled back against Switzerland's Belinda Bencic to make a winning start as the Australian notched up a 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory.
The French Open champion lost the opening set in the pair's first meeting but conceded just three games in the remaining two sets to seal a win guaranteeing that she will end the year as the WTA's top-ranked player, as well as putting her on top of the Red Group with Osaka in the competition's round robin format.
"I think it was a pretty high-quality match and it's a difficult court to get rhythm on at times, so it's important to try and neutralise when you can and that was the biggest key in the second and third sets," said the 23-year-old Barty.
Bencic, 22, took the first set by breaking the Australian in the penultimate game as Barty sent her forehand long from behind the baseline.
Barty responded in style, however, reeling off five straight games to take control of the second set as Bencic struggled with a heel injury.
The world no. 7 returned after a medical time-out to win the opening game of the final set but Barty was soon in control again, securing a break in the third game that allowed her to cruise to victory.
Against Osaka in a rematch of this year's tense Australian Open final, world No. 6 Kvitova came out with intent until she stuttered in the eighth game of the opening set with three double faults to squander the game.
The Japanese held off two break points in the ninth game before dominating the tiebreak to draw first blood.
It seemed to shake the Czech's confidence but Kvitova, the oldest player in the draw at 29, impressively clawed back in the second set and took advantage of an error-strewn Osaka, who several times slammed her racquet in frustration.
A refocused Osaka put the foot down in the deciding set but could not convert two match points in the eighth game before finally closing it out in the 10th to issue a statement to her rivals in the Red Group.
The 22-year-old maintained her unbeaten record over Kvitova, having won their only previous clash in a three-set classic in Melbourne. Both are two-time Grand Slam champions.
The event's move to China, after a five-year run in Singapore, is highlighted by a record prize pool in tennis with the winner receiving up to US$4.725 million.