Welcome back to Sunshine Stories, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the North American spring over the past five years. We continue our Miami countdown with 2019’s fourth round clash between Ashleigh Barty and Kiki Bertens
2015: Serena Williams d. Simona Halep, semifinals
2016: Victoria Azarenka d. Garbiñe Muguruza, fourth round
2017: Simona Halep d. Naomi Osaka, second round
2018: Jelena Ostapenko d. Elina Svitolina, quarterfinals
HOW THEY GOT THERE: While the Miami 2019 draw had seen many leading contenders tumble out in the early stages, including erstwhile WTA World No.1 Naomi Osaka, defending champion Sloane Stephens and eight-time winner Serena Williams, the second quarter of the draw, where Barty and Bertens were situated, was broadly intact by their fourth-round meeting.
Certainly, the in-form Barty, who was coming off a tight last-16 loss to Elina Svitolina in Indian Wells, had reached the last 16 without any problems, dropping a mere eight games in total as she swept aside Dayana Yastremska and compatriot Samantha Stosur, spending a total of two hours and five minutes on court having received a bye in the first round.
Bertens had things a little tougher, but only marginally so. A 6-4, 6-1 win over Wang Xiyu in the second round, her opening match of the tournament, was followed by a scare against Viktoria Kuzmova, who took the opening set when they met in the third round. But the reigning St Petersburg champion rallied impressively, losing just one game of the next 13 as the match was sealed just 49 minutes after falling behind.
Both players arrived on court in form, having started their years habitually going deep in tournaments, but the head-to-head advantage clearly lay with the Australian, who had won all of their previous three meetings. Indeed, they had already faced off earlier in the year, with Barty winning a semifinal thriller, 6-7(40), 6-4, 7-5 in Sydney, where her run to the final proved a foreshadowing of the successful year that was to follow.
WHAT HAPPENED: Although Barty had a perfect record against Bertens to that point, she had rarely had things easy against her 27-year-old opponent. And yet the opening points suggested that the Australian might secure an unexpectedly straightforward passage into the quarterfinals. Twelve of the opening 16 points went her way, with Bertens’ game laced with errors, particularly on her backhand side.
From 0-3 down, however, Bertens showcased the form that had seen her win in St Petersburg. Recognizing that her backcourt game was not firing, she ventured forward and the change of tempo provided her the platform from which she claimed six of seven games to take the lead.
Another key to Bertens’ success in the opening set was her ability to convert both of the break points that she earned. Her undoing in the second may well have boiled down to missing three such opportunities in the fifth game to move a break clear, with both players dominant on their respective deliveries to that point.
In truth, it was Barty’s excellence that warded off these moments of potentially fatal danger. A brilliant short slice was followed by a super backhand pass when she trailed 15-40, then her doubles talent rose to the fore as she showed formidable reflexes at the net as she completed her escape.
These would prove the only opportunities that Bertens would have as Barty thereafter showcased her mental fortitude. Even without hitting the ball as sweetly as she might have wished, she was able to hang in a series of thrilling lengthy exchanges and draw enough errors from her rival to match her stride for stride.
When the chance came to break, she was clinical. A brilliant dropshot provided the opening, which was seized as Bertens sent a forehand into the net that consigned her to once again going the distance with her nemesis.
If the opening two sets had largely been dominated by serve, the first five games of the decider saw four breaks – doubling the total for the match. Three of these went the way of Barty as she managed to grind the Bertens forehand down repeatedly on the way to a 4-1 advantage.
The 22-year-old was serving well and proved that the game she dropped was simply a hiccup as she closed the match out emphatically, having found her range impressively when it mattered most.
When Bertens fired a backhand long, victory was Barty’s by a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 margin.
WHAT THEY SAID: Barty appreciated the fine lines that were trod upon in order to score the win but was keen to highlight the increasing versatility and adaptability in her game as one of the major reasons for her success.
“Knowing that I have plans A, B and C that I can go back to, particularly with what serves I like to hit, that's a pretty good step,” she said.
“Whenever I play Kiki, there's really not much in the match at all. For a span of six or seven games there she maybe gave me one or two errors - she really went into lockdown mode. I did well to squeeze out of my service game at 2-2 in the second, had a little wriggle there and went into lockdown mode myself.”
A tribute was paid to performance coach Ben Crowe for adding another layer to her game, having worked with her for little over half a year.
“He's made an astronomical difference,” she added. “We've created a really tightly knit group: we trust each other, we bounce ideas off each other and ultimately we try to get the best out of each other.”
WHAT IT MEANT: Having come perilously close to falling a set and a break down, Barty’s recovery meant that she reached her first Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, having lost out at the fourth round in Miami a year earlier to Elina Svitolina and then at the same stage days earlier in Indian Wells.
Victory teed her up to go on and defeat two more Top 10 players, Petra Kvitova, who had been her undoing in the last eight of the Australian Open earlier that year, and Karolina Pliskova as she secured the biggest title of her career to that point and propelled herself into the Top 10 for the first time.
More broadly, it was the catalyst for a memorable season that saw her seal a first major title at the French Open and then go on to win the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, where she was victorious despite losing her perfect record against Bertens in the round-robin stage.
Such success has seen Barty enjoy a rise to WTA World No.1 and even into 2020 she was still recording career-best runs at tournaments, reaching the semifinals in Australia.
Bertens, meanwhile, maintained her favoured busy schedule and enjoyed success during the clay court season, winning Madrid and going deep in Rome before a disappointing early exit at the French Open. Failure to make the second week at either Wimbledon or the US Open prevented her from making headway in the Ranking but she started 2020 with promise, reaching the last 16 in Australia and winning St Petersburg once more to maintain her presence as a firm fixture in the Top 10.