MIAMI, April 1, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Going into the women’s doubles final of the Miami Open presented by Itaú Sunday afternoon, Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka had strung together nine consecutive wins, including a title victory two weeks ago at Indian Wells. Not bad for a “dream team” that was formed just three months ago in Melbourne for the Australian Open.
As the unseeded Mertens and Sabalenka, from Belgium and Belarus, respectively, stood on the other side of the net from No. 6 seeds Sam Stosur from Australia and Zhang Shuai of China, thoughts of winning the Sunshine Double were foremost on both of their minds. It’s not an easy feat for any team to pull off, winning back-to-back WTA Premier Mandatory events – and in Stosur and Zhang, the reigning Australian Open champions, Mertens and Sabalenka faced a pair of formidable opponents, ranked second in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen doubles standings.
However, the fifth-ranked Mertens and Sabalenka were up to the task. They triumphed 7-6 (5), 6-2 for their 10th straight victory, and became the first women’s duo since Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza in 2015 to achieve the Sunshine Double (winning Indian Wells and Miami in the same calendar year) and the fifth team overall. March will be a month Mertens and Sabalenka will savor for a long time.
“It was a very tough match,” said Mertens said during an on-court interview, with Sabalenka by her side. “There were a lot of long points; it was really tight. I’m really happy with this win.”
Sabalenka called winning the Miami Open “really incredible.”
Mertens and Sabalenka started fast with a break of Stosur’s serve and consolidated it with Sabalenka going 4-for-4 on first-serve points, including a service ace on game point. Later, with Mertens and Sabalenka leading 5-3, Stosur and Zhang rebounded by saving two set points. With the momentum shifted, the first set could have gone either way, especially after Stosur and Zhang broke Sabalenka’s serve and held for a 6-5 lead. However, on Mertens’ next service game, she and Sabalenka fought off a pair of set points that forced a tie break. They won it 7-5 when Mertens hit an inside-out forehand winner past Zhang.
In the second set, Mertens and Sabalenka jumped out quickly with two service holds and a break of Stosur sandwiched in between for a 3-0 advantage. Later, after a Stosur winner was upheld by replay review that broke Mertens’ serve, the duo came right back with a break of their own. Then, Sabalenka consolidated the break with her team’s sixth ace plus a service winner that put them to within a game of capturing the title, ahead 5-2. Finally, they closed out the one hour and 25 minute final when Stosur hit a forehand wide on match point.
“We did this together,” Mertens said. “We stepped up a little bit more in the tie-break. I’m really happy we won the first set because it gave us an advantage.”
Sabalenka added to her teammate’s thoughts: “We became focused and just enjoyed the process. There’s something nice about playing together. We were relaxed on the court.
“I hope we play more tournaments together, especially Grand Slams.”
Barty title win is a fresh change of pace
When crafty Ashleigh Barty of Australia, all 5-feet-5-inches (1.66 meters) of her, lifted the Miami Open trophy on Saturday, becoming the newest WTA titlist after defeating Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 7-6 (1), 6-3, it continued what has been an unpredictable but refreshing start of the season.
Through the first three months – and 14 tournaments – there have been no repeat champions this year.
“Amazing, isn’t it?,” said Barty during her post-match press conference after the trophy ceremony. “On the women’s side, I think the level has evened out a lot, and the depth has grown over the last few years. Everyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning the tournament, and you try to make the most of it.”
Looking back on her Miami fortnight, the No. 12 seed Barty started her run with victories over No. 37 Dayana Yastrzemska and No. 78 Sam Stosur, both in straight sets. It set the tone for good things to come for the Brisbane, Australia native. Into the round of 16, Barty began bowling over her competition starting with No. 7 seed Kiki Bertens, who pushed the Aussie to three tough sets. Then, she came on strong to beat No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, also going three sets, and dominated No. 21 seed Anett Kontaveit in a rain-plagued semifinal. Finally, her 41 winners and arsenal of drop shots and backhand slices – that were as entertaining as they were effective – stiffled Pliskova.
“I’ve always tried to bring as much variety to the court as possible,” Barty said. “It’s about trying to neutralize what your opponent is doing.
“There was a phase in women’s tennis of big power and first strikers, but physically in tennis has grown, which has allowed more players to neutralize the big first ball and work their way into the points.”
— WTA (@WTA) 31. März 2019
Meanwhile, the fifth-seeded Pliskova, who owned an eight-inch height advantage over Barty, showed fatigue as the match wore on, perhaps, brought on by a series of late-night matches earlier during the tournament – including her semifinal win over No. 2 seed Simona Halep that didn’t end until early Friday morning.
“I was tired, super tired,” Pliskova admitted when she spoke with the media after losing the final. It didn’t help that she lost a 20-point game and was broken at the start of the second set following the first-set tie break. The WTA leader in service aces was out-aced by Barty 15-6. “If I felt a little bit more fresh, it could maybe be different.”
Regardess, there was little that was going to stop the humble Barty from winning her fourth title – and biggest of her career – which improved her season record to 18-3.
“It’s been an amazing fortnight of tennis. It really has,” Barty said. “I think it’s pretty cool to have played such a good match today, obviously in a big situation and a big match. Certainly proud of myself and happy the way that my team and I have been able to get through these two weeks.”
What they’re tweeting
• Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist (@christophclarey): “Getting to be an old timer, and I have to say it’s a reassuring treat to see all-court tennis and tactical variety rewarded with Bianca Andreescu winning Indian Wells and Ash Barty winning in Miami.”
• More from Christopher Clarey: “Anyone who thinks Ash Barty cannot someday win Wimbledon has a kangaroo loose in the top paddock.”