The stellar start to the season by Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara was rekindled at the Miami Open, as the No.5 seeds from Japan defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek, 3-6, 7-6(4), [10-2], to reach their third final of the season.
"I am so happy to win, because they are really good players," Aoyama said on court, following their win. "They won [in] two sets every match, so we focused to move a lot at the net, and then we tried to give them pressure."
Aoyama and Shibahara started the 2021 season on fire, winning their first 11 matches, which included titles at Abu Dhabi and the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne, as well as a trip to the Australian Open quarterfinals before falling to eventual champions Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka.
A four-match losing streak followed, but the Japanese pair has been rejuvenated with their run in Miami, punctuated by their one-hour and 46-minute semifinal victory over first-time pairing Mattek-Sands and Swiatek.
"Bethanie is such an amazing doubles player, and every time is a battle against her," Shibahara said on court. "Iga’s so young, so successful in singles. So today was really special, and I’m glad we got through this one."
In the opening frame, the combination of Swiatek’s strength and Mattek-Sands’s doubles guile helped the unseeded duo reel off five straight games from a 1-3 deficit and clinch the one-set lead.
In the second set, Mattek-Sands and Swiatek once again came back from 1-3 down to pull back on serve. Sturdy volleys by Swiatek helped her team save two set points at 5-6, but in the pivotal second-set tiebreak, Swiatek fired a groundstroke barely long to give Aoyama and Shibahara two more set points. Aoyama and Shibahara converted the first of those chances to level the encounter.
Excellent court sense by Aoyama and powerful volleying from Shibahara helped them dominate in the decisive match tiebreak, building a 9-2 lead and garnering seven consecutive match points after an error-forcing forehand by Shibahara. The No.5 seeds only needed one of those, as they forced a wide Swiatek volley to triumph in the clash.
This is the biggest final for Aoyama and Shibahara as a pairing. As a team, they have won five WTA doubles titles, all within the past year. Aoyama is aiming for her 15th WTA doubles title overall, while Shibahara seeks her sixth (all with Aoyama).
"From the very beginning, we had such great chemistry, and we have great communication, so that really helps us in every match," Shibahara said of her partnership with Aoyama.
No.8 seeds Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani will be Aoyama and Shibahara's opponents in Sunday's doubles final. In the night semifinal, Carter and Stefani outlasted another first-time pairing, Gabriela Dabrowski and Giuliana Olmos, 2-6, 6-3, [10-8].
Carter and Stefani are also into their third final of the season, after runner-up finishes in Abu Dhabi (where they lost to Aoyama and Shibahara) and Adelaide. This will be their first final at WTA 1000 level or higher.
Carter and Stefani needed 79 minutes to execute their comeback victory over unseeded Dabrowski and Olmos, as they aim for their third WTA doubles title. Both of their previous titles have come as a pairing, at 2019 Tashkent and 2020 Lexington.
Dabrowski and Olmos broke the No.8 seeds three times successively to take the first set, but Carter and Stefani turned the tables in the second, forcing volley errors with strong play to level the match.
The decisive match-tiebreak was closely contested throughout, with the first match point for either team coming at 9-8, when a superb sliding serve by Stefani was returned into the net by Olmos. That was the only chance Carter and Stefani needed, as they forced a long volley from Dabrowski to seal victory right away.
Aoyama and Shibahara have faced off against Carter and Stefani four times over the past 12 months -- three times at Grand Slam events. Carter and Stefani won their first meeting to reach the 2020 US Open quarterfinals, but Aoyama and Shibahara got their revenge three times over since then.
First, Aoyama and Shibahara defeated Carter and Stefani at the postponed 2020 Roland Garros. They then picked up two more wins during their winning streak at the start of the year, in the Abu Dhabi final and at the Australian Open.