In the end, there was no proper celebration for Ashleigh Barty. Not even a smile.
She stood on the court, politely applauding as an emotional Bianca Andreescu looked on from the changeover chair. Barty was ahead 6-3, 4-0 when Andreescu retired from the Miami Open final.
Nonetheless, Barty is a champion in Miami for the second straight time, and this year it's also a validation of the No.1 ranking she has held for 70 weeks and counting.
“I know there has been a lot of talk about the ranking,” Barty said later, “but I didn’t play at all last year and I didn’t improve any of my points whatsoever. There were girls who had the chance to improve theirs, so I felt like I thoroughly deserve my spot at the top of the rankings.
“I think everyone needs to understand that it’s a pandemic. It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a lot of us to go through, so it’s a bit of a difficult situation. But yeah, no, it doesn’t ever really get to me. I mean, it’s just what people say and I can’t change their opinion, so it doesn't stress me out at all.”
This ravishing run through the Miami Open draw could be the most important title of Barty’s career.
Wait, what? She won the 2019 French Open, right?
Yes, but consider this: Barty, hunkered down in Australia while the pandemic raged worldwide, didn’t play an official match for 11 months. And then, after a dizzying 45-hour journey with coach Craig Tyzzer from Brisbane to Miami, Barty faced a match point right out of the box. She survived that queasy moment against qualifier Kristina Kucova before knocking off three consecutive top 10 players – Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina and Andreescu.
Following up a major can be one of the toughest things a tennis player faces and, despite winning the 2019 year-end WTA Finals, Barty never had a chance to back up that French Open. Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek won the Grand Slams she sat out.
So instead it was Miami where the 24-year-old firmly put her foot down and re-established herself as the top player in the game. She joins a luminous list of players who have successfully defended their titles here: Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Venus and Serena Williams.
“I feel like I haven’t earned the right to be in a list of names with those champions,” Barty said. “They are genuine champions of our sport, legends of our sport. I think it’s extremely humbling to be mentioned in the same sentence as those champions, but I feel like I’ve got a long, long way to go yet before I can be in discussion with those names.”
Barty has now won 12 straight matches in Miami. She’s a blazing 14-2 this year.
Proud of our week in Miami 🏆 #10— Ash Barty (@ashbarty) April 3, 2021
But it’s never a nice way to finish a match... Wishing Bianca a speedy recovery! The first of many matches for us I’m sure! pic.twitter.com/IE3zGGgNF6
“Playing against her is something completely different,” Andreescu told the media later. “She hits a good ball. She doesn’t play like a lot of the players on tour. She likes to mix it up, like me. That’s not fun to play against.”
Going forward, Barty’s clay history suggests she’s not going anywhere. In fact, in the coming months, she could gain significant ground. Over the past five years, she’s 154-53 on clay, a winning percentage of 74.4 percent. That’s fourth-best among all WTA players. Osaka (67.6) and Muguruza (66.9) are both outside the top 10.
And while Osaka has yet to establish herself on grass, Barty won eight of her nine matches, including a title in Birmingham in 2019.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Barty said, “I’m still counting down the days to the grass season, without a doubt. I think probably in 2019, throughout each week that I played, I felt like I got better and better on the clay and obviously grew in confidence and grew in experience. If it turns out we have a great clay-court season, that’s fantastic, and if we don’t, then it’s not the end of the world.”
Barty has an ambitious schedule in the months ahead, including the Volvo Car Open, which starts Monday in Charleston. She said she is prepared to stay out on the road for the entire season.
After Andreescu addressed the crowd at the trophy presentation, Barty made her way to the stage. Even behind her mask, a smile, at last, was evident.
“It wasn’t easy,” Barty said of the decision to stay home. “I think at times my head and my heart were pulling in separate directions, but we know that for me personally and for my team, all the decisions we made in 2020 were for the right reasons, and that made me settle a bit easier with that, without a doubt.”