Cracking Start: Barty Wins Yarra Valley Classic

Ashleigh Barty (photo: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia)

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Australia’s Ashleigh Barty hadn’t played a WTA event in nearly a year until this week. To the casual observer, you couldn’t tell the difference. Sunday afternoon, she started her 2021 campaign off right by winning her first crown in her first tournament of the young season. Imagine what she might do for an encore when the Australian Open begins tomorrow in Melbourne.

Before a small but enthusiastic crowd, the World No. 1 from Queensland won her ninth career WTA title by capturing the WTA 500-series Yarra Valley Classic, one of three WTA tournaments concurrently taking place at Melbourne Park. Barty defeated World No. 15 and sixth seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, 7-6 (3), 6-4, in one hour and 47 minutes on Margaret Court Arena with the roof closed. She closed out the match by hitting a pair of aces, followed by a service winner, and won match point with a pitch-perfect lob winner.

The Yarra Valley Classic title is the second one Barty has won in Australia, along with winning at Adelaide at the beginning of the 2020 season, which coincidentally was the last time the affable Aussie won a singles title. She improved to 3-1 lifetime against Muguruza.

“It was some of the better tennis I played throughout the whole week,” Barty said during her post-match press conference. “Garbiñe forced me to play at that level. It was a great final.”

Barty fired 11 aces – including three in her opening service game to start the match – and won 78 percent (31 of 40) of her first-serve points en route to her title victory. She hit 28 winners that more than overcame her 32 unforced errors, while Muguruza ended with 14 winners and committed 40 unforced errors.

“From a player’s standpoint, we’re incredible grateful to have this opportunity to come out here and play,” Barty pointed out during the trophy ceremony on court after the match, “and with the crowd, it’s just fantastic. For us, this is what makes the magic happen. To all of the Melburnians here, I feel for you guys. You’ve had an exceptionally tough seven months. I have a lot of friends and family down here. So, I feel for you; I’m so grateful and happy you could be here with us to make it extra special for us.”

Muguruza expressed similar feelings. “I know it’s been difficult for this city and this country to make the Australian Open happen with everything that is going on and with the risks. We’re grateful to have the chance to play and have crowds. How amazing is that after almost a year empty. For us, it’s incredible.”

Later during her press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Barty if she could tell from the outset that she was going to be “on” against Muguruza, especially after beginning the match with three aces during her first service game.

“Yeah, it’s a tricky one I think because we try and play each point on its merit, do the right thing for each individual point,” Barty said. “That’s all I can focus on. Not think about that today is going to be my day or not. It’s about going out there with the right attitude and trying to bring things your way instantly.

“I wanted to be really clear with how I wanted to play. Obviously, that first service game was a good one. But you’re not going to get every single service game like that. It’s about managing the whole match throughout, but just trying to play each individual point as best you can.”

Barty told Tennis TourTalk that playing against good competition the week before the Australian Open has put her in a good frame of mind. “Yeah, this week I played some great opponents, produced some really good tennis. I think that’s a positive thing, is that every challenge that was thrown at me this week, we were able to find a way through, find a way to problem solve, work our way through.

“That’s what we try and do every single day. In an individual sport, when it’s a one-on-one, you’re trying in a way to play chess, out-move your opponent.

“I think for me that’s something I really enjoy about tennis. It’s certainly very nice to be back testing myself againstthe best in the world.”

Mertens wins Gippsland Trophy

Seventh seed Elise Mertens of Belgium needed just 68 minutes to win the Gippsland Trophy final over 94th-ranked Kaia Kanepi from Estonia, 6-4, 6-1, inside Margaret Court Arena Sunday afternoon. The title was the sixth career WTA crown for Mertens.

“The first tournament I played this year, so I’m very happy about the result, the way I played,” Mertens said during her post-match press conference.

The World No. 20 Mertens hit five aces and won a remarkable 89 percent of her first-serve points en route to the title victory. She hit 19 winners to 13 unforced errors and broke Kanepi’s serve four times in four tries. The Estonian, who was in pursuit of her fifth career title, finished with 17 winners but committed 26 unforced errors.

• The Gippsland Trophy doubles final was won by No. 1 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both of the Czech Republic. They defeated the Chan sisters of Taiwan, Latisha and Hao-Ching, 6-3, 7-6 (4), in 98 minutes. It was the first title for the 2018 Roland Garros and Wimbledon champions since winning at Shenzhen in January 2020.

Kontaveit, Li share Grampians Trophy

No. 6 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia recovered from a disastrous opening set and went on to beat No. 5 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece in a match tiebreak, 2-6, 6-3, 11-9, in their semifinal match Sunday afternoon on Court 3. Then, unseeded 99th-ranked Ann Li went the distance to triumph over No. 7 seed Jennifer Brady, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 10-6, in an all-American semifinal battle.

Because of the delayed schedule (caused by Thursday’s one-day postponement of matches) and with Monday’s start of the Australian Open, the Grampians Trophy final will not be played. Instead, both of Sunday’s semifinal winners – Kontaveit and Li – will receive finalist points and prize money.

“I’ve never actually met Ann before and I watched that match against Jenny and that she played,” Kontaveit said during her press conference. “I thought she played incredibly well and I was really impressed with her game. So, yeah, it was, of course I would have liked to have played the final, but it is what it is and definitely nice to sort of share the trophy and she was lovely as well on court. So, it was a nice moment.”

What they’re saying

• During her press conference Sunday afternoon, Yarra Valley Classic winner Ashleigh Barty was asked how important lead-up tournaments are. She said: “Every player is unique. Every single player prepares in a different way. For me, I love the opportunity of playing at home. I love playing in Australia. I feel like if there’s a tournament here, I grab it with both hands and try to do the best that I can.

“Of course, I mean, getting matches under your belt is important, particularly after an extended period off for me. Any time I get to play at home, I love to play inAustralia, and I love to play in front of my friends and family and try to prepare as best as I can that way leading into the Australian Open.”

• Yarra Valley Classic finalist Garbiñe Muguruza on the positive takeaways from the week: “It was a very, very good week, good performances, good matches. I normally don’t play the week before, but I’m taking a lot of positive from this week because a final of course is a final.

“Yeah, just starting to think about my next tournament. I think today also was a very good match. I think I had probably the final to play, the toughest final, against Ash. I think she played great. I think we both did a good match. Very close in the first set, also in the second set.Yeah, taking a good positive out of it.”

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