ZHUHAI - Big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka was too strong for Ashleigh Barty in the opening singles clash of the WTA Elite Trophy in China on Tuesday, taking the match 6-4, 6-4.

The tournament’s youngest player produced some typically aggressive tennis in Zhuhai, showing the form that has seen her shoot up the world rankings from 39th to 12th place in just three months. Belarus’s Sabalenka, 20, made the most of breaking Australian Barty, 22, in the very first game of the match, seeing out a nip-and-tuck opening set.

In-form Sabalenka looked the more confident of the two in the early stages, and the third seed held her nerve to pull out her first two aces to clinch the set. Ninth seed Barty took the initiative in the second set, breaking in the fourth game, only for Sabalenka to break back in Barty’s two following service games.

The pair produced some thrilling base-line battles for the spectators at the Hengqin International Tennis Center, but Sabalenka turned the screw to see out the match in one hour, 26 minutes. Their clash was their first round robin match, with both yet to play eighth seed and world number 18 Caroline Garcia from France.

“I think I played well in the first set, and in the second set I probably started to rush a little bit and make a lot of mistakes, and kind of stupid mistakes,” Sabalenka said after the match. “But I think the game was quite good, just a few a stupid moments.”

Barty said: “I’m disappointed not to come away with the win, but I’ll have another opportunity in the next few days to try and finish my season on a real high.” Asked about the strength of the field in Zhuhai, the 2017 semi-finalist said: “It’s phenomenal. I think last year was good, but this year’s another level. It’s really exciting for the women’s game. We have the top 20 players in the world this year who are fighting right until the end of the season, which is really positive.”

In Tuesday’s second singles match, fourth seed Elise Mertens from Belgium comfortably beat Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, the tenth seed, 6-3, 6-1. Now in its fourth year the Elite Trophy features 12 players ranked roughly from nine to 20. This year’s total prize money is $2.35 million across the singles and doubles tournaments.

On-court tantrum

Sabalenka has apologised for an on-court tantrum in which she shook an empty bottle in the direction of a ball boy before tossing it on the floor. The big-hitting Belarusian faced criticism after footage of the episode during her quarter-final defeat to Wang Qiang at the China Open in early October was shared widely on social media.

But following a winning start at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, the 20-year-old vowed to “never do it again”. “Well, I’m so sorry,” she said at her post-match press conference after beating Ashleigh Barty 6-4, 6-4. “It was emotional and I was losing my mind and after that I saw it on Twitter and I was just like ‘Oh my god, what did you mean?’.I didn’t even remember this, and I was just like ‘Wow, I’m sorry for this guy’.”

The controversy came ahead of a similar incident in which Spain’s Fernando Verdasco ranted at a ball boy for not bringing his sweaty towel quickly enough during a semi-final defeat by Yoshihito Nishioka at the Shenzhen Open. Footage went viral on social media and saw Verdasco heavily criticised. Judy Murray, the former British Fed Cup captain and mother of three-time Grand Slam winner Andy, tweeted: “What about a rule that makes players get their own towels?”

At the Shanghai Masters, Roger Federer said tennis sets the standard for many sports when it comes to respectful behaviour -- and that must extend to the treatment of ball boys and girls. “The ball kids are really important to us because they are also maybe the future of our game, like I was,” said the Swiss player, a ball boy before going on to become a 20-time Grand Slam champion. “You don’t want to have them leaving with feeling, oh my God, I was not appreciated or I was not liked or it was a horrible thing.”

But Federer pointed out that emotions run high in the heat of a match and that tennis is more intense now than in the past. In 2015 Novak Djokovic, now a 14-time Grand Slam winner, apologised to a Wimbledon ball girl after he screamed in her direction, leaving her looking shaken.

Following Sabalenka’s actions in Beijing, Anne Keothavong, Britain’s Fed Cup captain, tweeted: “I don’t care how good a tennis player you are but this type of behaviour needs to STOP.” An apologetic Sabalenka said, “It was bad of me and now I will never do it again, and I will try and be nice with the ball boys, even if they’re sometimes so slow!

“They’re just small kids, and you can’t do anything to them. Yea, I’m so sorry for that guy and hopefully he’s not pissed with me.” Sabalenka has shot up the world rankings from 39th to 12th place in just three months and was recently named WTA Newcomer of the Year. Asked about her strong finish to the season, she said: “I didn’t expect to do this well, but now I am just enjoying it and trying to improve more and more. It’s a really good feeling.”