A Party For Barty At The Miami Open

MIAMI, March 30, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Entering Saturday afternoon’s women’s singles final of the Miami Open presented by Itaú, there had been 13 different champions crowned during the first 13 WTA tournaments of 2019. If the Czech Republic’s Karolína Pliskova, seeded No. 5, prevailed in the title match, she would end the streak. However, if No. 12 seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia won, it would continue the trend.

With Pliskova and Barty each competing in her first Premier Mandatory final, and with plenty at stake for both – just the biggest title of each’s career – it seemed, whoever played their game the best would win.

As it happened, Barty’s all-court tennis featuring tactical variety – an arsenal of backhand slices and drop volleys, plus her ability to win important points, both on her serve and with her steady returns – was plenty more than Pliskova could handle. Despite playing both singles and doubles in Miami, Barty had plenty of energy to burn, something which Pliskova sorely lacked.

Barty dominated Pliskova over the duration of their one hour and 39 minute final, the first in the Miami Open’s 35-year history to be held at Hard Rock Stadium, and won easily, 7-6 (1), 6-3. She finished with plenty of fuel left in her tank as she won the biggest title of her career. It was the 22-year-old Barty’s sixth consecutive victory and her first WTA Tour title of the year. She will make her Top 10 debut at No. 9 on Monday.

When Conchita Martinez, Pliskova’s coach, asked her pupil during an early second-set change over what was troubling her, the response from Pliskova was blunt but to the point: “I’m dead.”

No wonder, as Barty fired 15 service aces and won 86 percent (32 of 37) of her first-serve points. She faced just two break points (both in the first set) and saved one of them, and she broke Pliskova three times. Barty outpointed Pliskova 84-66 and did it through hustle, finesse and sheer will power. Her victory was very well deserved and the title was her first since winning the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai at the end of last year.

“It’s been a phenomenal two weeks,” said Barty, interviewed on court by ESPN2’s Pam Shriver following her Miami win. “Playing both on the singles and doubles courts, it’s been a busy week. I think the turning point was Wimbledon last year. I’ve been on a roll and played some great tennis since then.”

The victory improved Barty’s singles record in all competitions this year to 20-4 (16-4 in WTA Tour matches). Plus, she’s 5-2 in doubles, mostly pairing with Victoria Azarenka.

Before the match, Hall of Fame great Chris Evert, commenting during the ESPN2 broadcast in North America, said the first couple of games would set the tone for the match. And she was right. Pliskova jumped to an early 3-1 lead, thanks to breaking Barty in the third game and consolidating it with her first of six service aces. However, Barty broke back in the sixth game and held serve. It sent an important message to her opponent.

“I knew it was important for me to make it physical (today), that Kaja has the ability to hit you off the court and hit it away from you,” Barty said. “So, I had to have my running shoes on today. I had to try to make as many balls as possible.” 

Early on, Barty worked her points by showing a variety of looks – slice, drop volley, solid two-fisted backhand returns – while Pliskova relied upon her power game. Both showed consistency, especially from the baseline, and the margins were very slim. Neither budged and the first set was decided by a tie break – the fifth time in their tour rivalry – which was won by Barty 7-1 in 53 minutes after she quickly jumped out to a 5-1 lead. The Aussie sealed it when Pliskova, under pressure, missed with consecutive forehands.

During the changeover after the first set, Pliskova received a passionate visit from Martinez – herself a Grand Slam champion in her day – who offered both constructive tactical advice on her serve and positive encouragement. “Stay positive,” she said. “You can do this!”

Unfortunately for Pliskova, she remained in a funk the remainder of the match, and as the WTA Insider suggested in its live blog of the final, “there’s no explosion in her movement and you can tell she’s stuck in her own head a bit.”

The opening game of the second set was crucial and Barty broke Pliskova’s serve in the longest game of the match. She generated five break points during the seven-deuce game and finally broke on an unforced error by Pliskova. Then, Barty’s eighth service ace consolidated the early break for a 2-0 lead. She continued to pressure Pliskova during the Czech’s next service game. Then, Barty won at love on her own service – firing three aces that left Pliskova dead in her tracks, unable to get a look – for a 3-1 lead.

Asked if she thought Pliskova looked fatigued, Barty responded, “A little bit and I had to make the most of it. You never get these opportunities every day, so it was important for me to continue to try to do the right thing – and enjoy the moment as well.”

Barty never looked back from there as she remarkably played just 18 points on her serve in the second set, winning 16 of them. Meanwhile, Pliskova was forced to play 52 points on her serve, with most of them coming in her first two service games. Although she won 27 of them, each of those service games lasted over 10 minutes apiece.

Reflecting upon her Miami Open fortnight – and what a fortnight it was – Barty secured her Top 10 debut, gained her first win over Petra Kvitova, garnered the biggest title of her career, and her first Premier Mandatory. Next stop: A long but enjoying flight home to Brisbane and a chance to celebrate and rejuvenate, then, come back stronger. It’s a long season ahead and there’s plenty more goals for Barty to achieve, starting with repping Australia in the Fed Cup World Group semifinals against Belarus at home in Brisbane. Don’t bet against her.

Perfect March at stake for Mertens and Sabalenka

When unseeded Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka beat wild cards Victoria Azarenka and Ashleigh Barty, 7-6 (6), 7-5, to advance into Sunday’s Miami Open doubles final against reigning Australian Open champions and No. 6 seeds Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai, it was their ninth straight victory. Not bad when you consider they just started their doubles partnership earlier this year at the Australian Open. Since then, they’ve won 11 of their 12 matches, losing only to the World No. 1 team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.

Now the Indian Wells champions will try to close out a perfect month of March, and if they’re successful it would also give Mertens and Sabalenka the “Sunshine Double,” which is an unofficial title given to the team that wins both Indian Wells and Miami in the same calendar year.

“We’ve played, of course, a lot of doubles matches these last couple of weeks, so I think that really was the key for us,” said Bertens. The Belgian is also ranked No. 14 in the world in singles, while Sabalena, from Belarus, is a solid No. 9. “To know what we’re doing, when to switch, and even to pump each other up when it was getting tighter.

“Singles or doubles, for me it doesn’t matter – a title is a title. Of course, if we have the opportunity, I really hope we take it.”

What they’re tweeting

From Hall of Fame great Rod Laver: Congratulations @ashbar96 – you did it! The @MiamiOpen title and into the top 10 where you belong. More titles await for this humble Aussie, exciting times!”

Notes 

Among the notables in attendance for the women’s final at Hard Rock Stadium were pro tennis Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, who won the very first Miami Open women’s singles title in 1985, and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who played his entire pro career with the Miami Dolphins.

Sunday’s order of play

Men’s singles/final
No. 4 Roger Federer vs. No. 7 John Isner, 1 p.m.

Women’s doubles
Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 6 Sam Stosur/Zhang Shuai, following men’s trophy presentation.