Heading into the Miami Open, no team other than Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara had won two titles in 2021. Two weeks later, the Japanese duo added a third title to their season resumes, defeating Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani to win the Miami Open, the biggest title of their careers. On Monday, Aoyama and Shibahara will take over the No.1 position in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen Grid with 2,373 points.
Aoyama, 33, and Shibahara, 23, formed a permanent partnership at the 2019 Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo and enjoyed immediate success. Just four tournaments into their partnership, they captured their first team title in Tianjin and backed it up with a title in Moscow a week later.
After a strong off-season training together in Japan last winter, Aoyama and Shibahara kicked off the 2021 season on an 11-match winning streak, taking home titles in Abu Dhabi and the Yarra Valley Classic. Despite their early success, few tapped them to come through the packed draw in Miami. The team was riding a four-match losing streak after bowing out of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and taking opening-round losses at the Adelaide International, Qatar Total Open and Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
But after two weeks of training in California, Aoyama and Shibahara found their groove, which they credit to improved communication and the hard work put in to improve and normalize the patterns of play when their preferred positions on court were reversed. And there's no reason to think the results will change when the tour turns to clay. Last season, Aoyama and Shibahara enjoyed a strong clay-court run, making the semifinals in Rome and Strasbourg, and the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.
Aoyama and Shibahara sat down with WTA Insider via Zoom to discuss the technical and tactical improvements that were key to winning Miami and look ahead to the clay season.
WTA Insider: After winning Abu Dhabi, you said one of the keys to your success that week was the improved communication between the two of you. Three months later, has there been more developments in your partnership that has led to this great success?
Shibahara: I think what really developed was expanding on the communication. I think we're a lot more honest with each other. No holding back. Because we both want each other to get better and get to the next level.
Even after we won those two titles, we still saw room for improvement. We would get together and have these meetings and I would ask her what she thinks I should do better so that we could win at the next level.
After the Australian Open, losing to the champions, that was a pretty tough loss for us. We felt like we needed to improve a little bit more so we could beat those champions next time.
Aoyama: When we get together we make sure we have the same mindset and same strategies so we can set each other up.
Shibahara: If she's at the baseline, I do my best to move a lot at net and make myself present. Before, the winning pattern was usually when I was at the baseline and she was at net. But we worked on being able to do well when I'm at net. Having that same mindset every time.
Aoyama: So we can move easier the same way. We can stand in a good position even before she hits because I believe maybe she will hit one way then I will stand that way.
Shibahara: Yeah, trusting each other's shots so that we can be more in sync.
WTA Insider: We saw that in particular in your last two matches. It didn't seem like the team lost anything when the pattern was reversed with Shuko at the baseline and Ena at the net. It was just as effective. How did you get to the point where you felt comfortable in the reversed pattern?
Shibahara: Definitely practicing, and I had to build up the courage to actually make myself present at net. Usually, I would wait to make a move until it's the perfect timing, but I learned from Shuko that even if it's not the perfect timing or if you miss, you still put pressure on the opponents.
In practice I do it well, but sometimes in matches I get a little safe sometimes. So I think her giving me the courage to move a lot up there, this week I had more success at net than I've ever had. I'm really happy with that.
Aoyama: And also maybe my serve and my groundstrokes, I'm trying to hit harder because it helps her at the net. If I hit a good ball, maybe she can move easier. So I am trying to do that and it's better.
WTA Insider: Speaking of playing from the baseline, Shuko, you and Iga Swiatek had some memorable baseline exchanges in the semifinals. You really held your own against her. How much has your confidence grown after being able to go toe-to-toe with big-hitting singles players?
Aoyama: If I lose confidence then maybe I lose points. So I am trying. It's just the half-court in doubles. So I'm trying to hit with my power, so it's not a big difference because it's just half-court (laughs).
Just focus on each ball. It's very good for the confidence against big singles players. I'm very happy against the big singles players.
WTA Insider: As you look ahead to the clay season, how much will you need to adjust as a team to be successful on clay?
Aoyama: It's a different bounce so we just try to hit it comfortably. But I think the basics we don't change. We try to keep improving the same way.
Shibahara: Last year was basically my first clay-court season on tour. I was a little nervous going into it last year because I don't have that much experience on clay. I mean, I grew up in L.A. and we don't really have a lot of clay courts (laughs).
So my expectations were a little low last year, but I did a lot better than I thought I would. That gives me confidence going into this clay-court season. I feel like I can focus on building my game instead of worrying about the bounce or my movement because it was all there last year and I can just build on it.
I think we play good on slow surfaces. It gives us time to make our moves and hit good balls. So we're looking forward to the clay season.