Barty Celebrates Birthday With A Big Triumph

Ashleigh Barty receiving birthday flowers from Anke Huber and Markus Günthardt (photo: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix)

STUTTGART/WASHINGTON, April 24, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

With only Top 10 players remaining in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Saturday’s semifinals promised two great battles on the indoor red clay at Porsche Arena.

Imagine a final four of World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty facing No. 5 Elina Svitolina followed by World No. 3 Simona Halep against No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The participants didn’t disappoint. Only the fans were missing.

First up, Barty, who has been ranked at the top of women’s tennis for the past 65 weeks and running – and will remain on top when the tour heads for Madrid next week – came in search of winning her third WTA title of the year, while Svitolina, who has reached the quarterfinals or better at five of seven tournaments this year, hoped to turn around her most recent meeting against Barty, in which she lost in the Miami Open semifinals last month. She already had dethroned defending champion Petra Kvitova in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Barty’s quiet determination and great fight – never losing faith in herself or her game – has been on display all week in Stuttgart, in her debut at the WTA 500-series event. For the second straight day, Barty stared down an opponent serving for the match, and each occasion the likable Aussie has turned a sure defeat into a positive victory. This time, Barty rallied from a set down to beat the fourth-seeded Svitolina from Ukraine, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, in just over two hours to reach her third final of the season.

Barty took advantage of a couple of key service breaks in the final set, in the third and seventh games, and won this high-quality semifinal match on her second match-point opportunity with a forehand winner, her 36th winner of the match, to advance.

“It’s important to believe [in yourself]. This is what I love to do; I’m grateful to have an opportunity to come out here and fight. Regardless of the score, I try to play the right way,” Barty said. “That’s all I control. I come out here to have fun.”

On Sunday, Barty will face the sixth seed Sabalenka, who reached the final in her Stuttgart debut with a convincing 6-3, 6-2 victory over second seed Halep.

Svitolina, who arrived with a 5-2 career head-to-head against Barty, broke the Aussie to go ahead 4-3 and served out the 34-minute opening set with a forehand winner and an ace. She did not face any break points and played one of the best sets of tennis all season.

Meanwhile, Barty who was bidding to become the first reigning No. 1 to win Stuttgart since Justine Henin achieved the feat in 2007, rebounded in the second set, going ahead 3-0 with an early break of Svitolina. However, Barty was broken twice, in the seventh and ninth games, and Svitolina put together a streak of winning five out of six games – including three solid holds – two of them at love. Looking to reach her first Stuttgart final at 5-4, Barty broke back for 5-all and forced a tie-break.

In the tie break, Svitolina raced to an early 4-2 lead, but Barty rallied with a pair of breaks to go ahead 6-4 and won on her serve 7-5 with a nifty backhand drop shot that Svitolina could only swat back into the net. So, it was on to a deciding set after an hour and a half of riveting tennis.

After going three sets to beat World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinal round on Friday, Barty was asked about the importance of playing a tough match before the semifinals. She took the question head on, saying: “All matches are a great challenge. I love testing myself against the best in the world. Then, any time you get towards the point of the end of the tournament you expect to be playing extremely tough matches, people are obviously well acclimatized, they know the conditions quite well and they are playing good tennis.

“So, it’s a challenge regardless of what round. But it’s certainly nice to be able to play a match like that today against a quality opponent and find a way through in the end.”

As the third set developed, Barty got a tremendous boost when she broke Svitolina to go ahead 2-1, winning a 16-point third game that included six deuce points, on her sixth break-point opportunity. From there, Barty build upon her momentum and broke Svitolina a second time in the seventh game to take a commanding 5-2 lead. Determined to not squander the opportunity, she served out the win in the next game.

“Elina played an exceptional first set and a great match,” Barty said. “She’s one of the best competitors on the tour. So, I knew it was going to be an extremely hard-fought match with very small margins.”

Svitolina gave props to Barty afterward. “It was a really tough battle today,” she said. “I think we both played some good tennis and I wish I could play a little bit better the second set in the end of the tie break. In the end, it was a high-level match. I will take a lot of positives out of this. …

“[Ash] was moving good and she was striking the ball quite good as well.”

Barty and Svitolina shared a warm handshake at the net. Then, as she returned to do an on-court interview, Barty received a colorful bouquet of flowers from tournament director Markus Günthardt and operating tournament director Anke Huber and was serenaded with “Happy Birthday.”

“I love to play tennis,” Barty said. “I love to compete, and to do it on my birthday makes it even more special.”

Sabalenka in hot pursuit of first title on clay

Romania’s Simona Halep came into the second semifinal with a 3-1 career head-to-head advantage against Aryan Sabalenka of Belarus, who arrived in Stuttgart looking for the first clay-court title of her career. Sabalenka has reached one previous final on the surface at Lugano in 2018. Now, after her 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Halep, in which the Belarusian dominated throughout much of their 66-minute tussle, she’s into her second clay title match.

While Halep was aiming for her first final since winning Rome last year – and Stuttgart represented the only major clay title that has eluded her – she’ll have to wait a little bit longer.

Sabalenka, who finished with 28 winners, broke Halep in the fourth game of the opening set and won it 6-3 with an ace up the middle. Then, she broke Halep in the opening and seventh games of the second set and was never seriously threatened the remainder of the match.

Sabalenka, who saved all three break points she faced, closed out the match at love with back-to-back aces, her third and fourth to advance to Sunday’s final against World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty. She did so by outpointing Halep 68-46. The World No. 3 Halep was held to just 12 winners against 17 unforced errors.

“It was a great match,” Sabalenka said during her on-court interview after the victory. “I played really well and Simona also played really well. I fought for every point. It was not really easy because I had to stay focused against Simona. I’m happy with this match and with my level today.”

After the match, Halep praised Sabalenka, telling Tennis TourTalk: “She is very powerful. When everything goes right for her, it’s pretty tough to return the balls long and deep to give her a little bit of trouble. So, she overpowered me today.”

Saturday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix results

Sunday’s Porsche Tennis Grad Prix order of play

Krawczyk/Mattek-Sands reach doubles final

No. 1 seeds Desirae Krawzcyk and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, both of the United States, reached the doubles final with a 7-5, 4-6, 10-6 victory over Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine and Raluca Olaru of Romania in one hour and 49 minutes. An overhead smash by Mattek-Sands on match point wrapped up the win for the Americans, who outpointed Kichenok and Olaru 75-62. Krawczyk and Mattek-Sands combined to hit 25 winners and broke their opponents twice in six opportunities.

“I kind of like this tournament. I’ve always loved playing on the clay here,” Mattek-Sands said during an on-court interview. “Obviously, I love when the fans are here. I think German fans are great. They know more stats about my career than I do. So, I really appreciate their enthusiasm. Everyone does a great job behind the scenes making sure the players are having a good time. It’s one of the favorites. I love coming back here and it’s great to be in the finals.”

In Sunday’s final, Krawczyk and Mattek-Sands will face the doubles dream team of Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Jennifer Brady of the United States, both Top 20 players. Barty and Brady defeated Vivian Heisen of Germany and Wang Yafan of China, 6-1, 7-5.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Ashleigh Barty on if the effectiveness of her slice and drop shots are affected by switching from hard courts to clay: “I think I use it differently. I try and use it differently, depending on what surface we’re playing on. I think that also comes down to the speed of the surface. You know, at times I want to use it with a little bit more aggression and at other times I want to use my slice to change the tempo of the match completely and really slow it down. So, it’s about me finding that balance and trying to use it assertively at times and then also defensively at other times. But that changes each match and each opponent, not just with the surface as well.”