Caroline Garcia took another step in her remarkable resurgence with victory at the WTA Finals on Monday.
Garcia won the biggest title of her fascinating career after beating Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(4) 6-4 in a wonderfully taut, power-packed contest in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Frenchwoman’s triumph completes a sparkling five-month period during which she rose from world No.75 to No.4 – matching a career-best ranking she first attained more than four years ago.
During this purple patch Garcia won four titles – on grass, clay, hard and indoor courts – and won 36 of her last 45 matches, more wins than any player in the second half of the WTA season.
You might think she could not play any better, but in a post-match interview with Tennis Channel, the 29-year-old said she wanted to challenge herself to improve further.
“I think it’s super important to keep improving; we say if you don’t move forward, you move backward,” said Garcia, a winner of 10 of her past 11 finals.
“That’s not something we want to do in the team, and I don’t want to do it either; I did it a couple of years ago, and didn’t really enjoy the ride.”
That last comment referred to her descent after a sizzling end to 2017.
Five years ago she won back-to-back WTA 1000 titles in Wuhan and Beijing to qualify for the WTA Finals – her only other appearance at the eight-player championship – before going on to crack the top five.
Injuries and loss of form followed, and in subsequent seasons she slipped in the rankings, hitting a low of world No.79 in May 2022. She also alluded to “mistakes” during this period.
“I think I grow up a lot with all the challenges on and off court. Off court, it's very important to manage all of it,” she said at the US Open.
“Obviously I learned a lot. I got some tough years in there. I got some experience. We have been working hard to come back to the top level. I'm really glad to be at this level again.”
It is a journey making her rise in 2022 all the more phoenix-like.
So, what does “moving forward” look like for Garcia?
With the WTA Finals trophy now on her CV alongside three WTA 1000 titles, the only tournaments bigger than those left for her to win are the Grand Slams.
She will get an opportunity to do that in just two months at the Australian Open.
There is distinct correlation between success at both the WTA’s season-ending championship in November and the year’s first Grand Slam tournament in January.
In the 35 editions of the Australian Open since the tournament moved to Melbourne Park in 1988, the reigning WTA Finals champion has fallen before the quarterfinals just six times.
WTA Finals champions + next AO result
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On 13 occasions, the winner of the WTA Finals has gone on to win the very next AO.
One of those players was Amelie Mauresmo, the last Frenchwoman to claim the WTA Finals title before Garcia’s breakthrough on Monday.
Mauresmo had not won a Grand Slam title before her victory at the 2005 season-ending event in Los Angeles. "I really think that's a huge step for me,” she said at the time. “I don't know where it's going to take me, but it is a step.
“You know that it's an important moment."
It could be argued the WTA Finals champion should be expected to play well at the Australian Open, given they are already a top player who then earns a high seeding at Melbourne Park.
But what cannot be discounted is the significant boost the WTA Finals champion receives going into the off-season.
Their most recent memory, when they resume competing, is an extremely positive one – as the last WTA Finals-Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki experienced.
"I feel good,” Wozniacki said ahead of her title-winning run AO 2018, which closely followed her biggest career title at the 2017 WTA Finals in Singapore.
“I think I've had a great last year. Something I'm very proud of. Just happy to be here, playing pretty well. Hopefully I can build on that."
Garcia will look to build similarly. And there is reason to believe she could fare well at the Australian Open, given she recently recorded her own Grand Slam milestone.
More than five years after her only major quarterfinal at Roland Garros in 2017, Garcia powered into the US Open semifinals without losing a set.
It was further proof she can produce her best on the game’s grandest stages, as she did in Fort Worth to win one of the biggest matches of her career against Sabalenka.
“I’m just very proud the way I kept my mind calm,” said Garcia, who claimed a $1.57 million champion’s cheque.
“I managed my emotions and focused one point at a time. It makes a difference.”
One of the intriguing plotlines in January will be whether or not Garcia can maintain this mindset into, and throughout, the AO 2023 fortnight.