After securing the WTA’s No.1 ranking for at least another month, Ashleigh Barty fittingly looked like the best player in the world.
She scuffled by her enormous standards in previous matches at the Miami Open, seeing three of them go the distance. But Thursday, against No.5-seeded Elina Svitolina, there was never even a whiff of doubt.
Barty, playing with intelligence, athleticism and a breathtaking diversity of shot, won 6-3, 6-3. Was this her best match in Miami?
“Yeah, I think it was,” she said afterward. “I think [with] Elina, you have to produce your best tennis. Happy with the way we were able to execute today.”
Barty is now a gaudy 12-2 in 2021 and has won 11 straight matches in Miami, going back to 2019 when she captured the title. The global pandemic forced the cancelation of the 2020 tournament, and Barty chose to stay home for the entire season.
She’ll be playing in her second final of this year; Barty took the Yarra Valley Classic title in February, just before the Australian Open. Saturday’s final will feature Barty against Bianca Andreescu. The Canadian defeated Maria Sakkari 7-6(7), 3-6, 7-6(4) well after midnight to make her first final since winning the 2019 US Open. It will be the first meeting between the two standout players of the 2019 season.
"I haven't played her before, haven't hit with her,'" Barty said. "It's a fresh one for both of us. But she's proven time and time again that she loves the big matches, loves the big tournaments, and has the game and the physicality to win them."
The only hiccup beyond some inconsistency in Barty's first serves? A medical timeout between sets to attend to a preexisting abdominal injury. Barty said it wouldn’t be an issue for the final.
“Yeah, I was a little bit sore,” she said. “I got some assistance with some tape on it. But knowing we’ve got a day to recover tomorrow, I promise you I’ll be right as rain and then we’ll be good to go.”
You would never know from the numbers that Barty wasn’t 100 percent.
Svitolina had nine service games and Barty broke her five times. Barty produced 27 winners, while Svitolina had only 11.
Coming in, much was made of Svitolina’s 5-1 head-to-head advantage, factoring in Fed Cup. Barty, however, captured the most recent – and important – meeting, the final of the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals with a 6-4, 6-3 decision over Svitolina.
“With the head-to-head we had, I almost see myself as the underdog, I really do,” Barty said. “It gives me the chance to go out there and play with freedom. To play not careless, but carefree tennis. And just know there’s not too much riding on the result. It’s about trying to stick to the process.”
Barty, clearly, has grown as a player since that last match.
Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, called the match and said she was impressed by Barty’s tennis IQ.
Two points from the match’s second game illustrate this:
Down 30-40, Barty hit a second serve ace down the middle at 108 miles per hour. After winning the next point, she tracked down a drop shot, raced back to the baseline to recover a lob and eventually stroked an elegant drop short with Svitolina frozen on the baseline.
While Svitolina is terrific at redirecting the ball and favors the faster surfaces, Barty likes a slow court. Miami, the players say, is grittier and slower than usual, which means the ball doesn’t bounce quite as high. This helped Barty’s trademark slices stay lower and are more difficult to dig out.
This caused all kinds of problems for Svitolina, who came into the match with six career wins over world No.1s. After one last massive forehand winner to close out the match, Barty gave her a wink at net.
Barty is now a sporty 14-8 in WTA semifinals, 9-5 in finals.
“Every time you’re on the court you’re able to improve, try to get a little bit better and grow every single day,” Barty said. “And I think that’s come with every single match. Every single match I feel like I’ve done something a little bit better and that’s all you can ask. Just try to get that little bit better, that one percent that half-percent just trying to do things right each day.”