World No 1 Ash Barty had a better time of it on Saturday at the Miami Open presented by Itaú, dismissing Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets to set up a round of 16 meeting with Victoria Azarenka, winner over Angelique Kerber, while Aryna Sabalenka saw off Veronika Kudermetova to take on Marketa Vondrousova next, who upset Belinda Bencic in 3 sets.
I think today felt like I was a lot sharper, and switched on, and ready to go from the very first point. I give myself another opportunity to try and do that again in another match in a couple days' time. I think that is probably the most pleasing thing is that, each day, we continue to learn, each day we continue to grow and continue to try and develop our game and learn from our mistakes, learn from all experiences that we have. Ash Barty
For the most part, the tournament favourites are mostly preserved, although joining Bencic on the causality list was Iga Swiatek, who was sent home by Ana Konjuh, and Simona Halep withdrew due to a right shoulder injury, giving clear passage to Anastasija Sevastova.
In the top quarter of the draw, things are hotting up, as Barty, who endured a real scare in her opening match against a qualifier, Kristina Kucova from Slovakia, produced a more polished performance against Ostapenko, whom she beat 6-3 6-2 in an hour 9 minutes.
“I think today felt like I was a lot sharper, and switched on, and ready to go from the very first point,” Barty said. “I give myself another opportunity to try and do that again in another match in a couple days’ time.
“I think that is probably the most pleasing thing is that, each day, we continue to learn, each day we continue to grow and continue to try and develop our game and learn from our mistakes, learn from all experiences that we have.”
In fact, it was the first game of the first set that proved to be the most dramatic, in which Barty had to survive 4 break-point attempts before winning the 16-point affair.
The top seed then immediately broke Ostapenko, but needed to weather another marathon game to pocket the set after serving for it at 5-3, and needing 5 set points before finally clinching the 6th.
Ostapenko came out firing in the second, holding serve before breaking Barty to go up 2-0, but the Australian then rolled off 6 straight game wins to earn a straight-forward victory.
Barty had kept Ostapenko on the move and on the defensive throughout, pulling her in and moving her from side to side.
After cruising into the last 16, Barty spoke about the time needed to quarantine on either end of a journey back home that would prove too much of a challenge.
“Obviously with the quarantine laws in Australia, we do our two weeks’ quarantine in a hotel, and there is actually not a lot of space in the season to be able to do that just to get home for the two weeks,” said Barty.
“So at this stage we’re planning to be away until after the US Open and, potentially, right to the end of season.”
While Barty is no stranger to long periods away from home, she admitted settling into a stretch that could last until November if the entire season goes ahead, takes some getting used to.
“Without a doubt it was something that was new to me, new to try and wrap my head around, and comprehend, where we’re going to be away for such an extended period,” said Barty, who is 2019 defending Miami Open champion after last year’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Of course there were tears the days leading up. There were tears when I did finally leave, and then when we left. Then we were delayed and had to leave again. It was all kind of happening.”
There has been plenty of conjecture about Barty’s status as the World No 1 after the rankings were frozen when COVID-19 hit, in a move that made sure players who missed tournaments during the pandemic were not punished.
The Aussie didn’t play for the final 10 months of 2020, only returning to the match court at the start of this year.
She won the Yarra Valley Classic, lost in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, and then was knocked out in the opening round of the Adelaide International.
Through it all she has retained her top spot, and Barty can ensure she stays there by making the final in Miami.
Reaching the decider would prevent reigning AO champion Naomi Osaka from overthrowing Barty, but if the 24-year-old loses before the semi-finals, then the Japanese can become No 1 by reaching the final.
If Barty makes it to the semi-finals but loses, however, Osaka must win the Miami tournament to take the crown.
The defending champion’s potential path to the final just became easier after No 3-seeded Halep withdrew before her third-round match, but her next opponent could prove tricky in the form of Azarenka, who took out Kerber, 7-5 6-2, and is on a quest for her 4th Miami Open title.
The Belarusian maintained her mastery over her fellow former World No 1, winning 12 of the final 15 games against her German rival on the Grandstand court.
“I did a good job of maintaining positive energy when things weren’t working out in the beginning,” she said after the match. “I was looking for the right approach and trying to find my rhythm.
“The game, the movement and rhythm eventually came, but it all stemmed from my approach, my mentality.”
Azarenka was playing her first match in Miami, having received a bye as the No 14 seed, and then a walkover from another German, Laura Siegemund.
She rallied from a slow start but the two were tied at 5-all in the first set, when Azarenka broke Kerber before holding serve to snag it after scoring 8 of the final 10 points.
“I’ve played enough on tour to know that one set is not enough, and anything can happen,” Azarenka said, “But I definitely felt more in control with my game, and that the longer the match went on, the better my rhythm was getting.”
The second set was all Azarenka, who earned 2 early breaks en route to the victory after 90 minutes.
“All of the matches we’ve played end up being huge battles,” she said. “It’s never an easy match, and they’re always quality.
“Our games match pretty well. She’s a counter-attacking player and great on defence, and I use that part of my game as well, so it makes for a lot of long rallies and tough games.
“I feel I’ve always managed to take my chances in our matches, but I know they’ll be tough, so I’m always prepared to play Angelique fully!”
Kerber has also been decidedly out of form since tournaments resumed from lockdown, winning back-to-back matches just once since the US Open, but the No 24 seed nonetheless put down an emphatic 6-0, 6-0 scoreline on Mexico’s Renata Zarazua to kick off her Miami campaign, and continued that momentum early on against Azarenka.
From an initial break down, the 3-time Grand Slam champion won the next 4 games and had points for 5-2 before Azarenka could find her footing.
The Belarusian emerged on the winning end partly because Kerber coughed up 8 double-faults, but also as a result of winning 5 of 6 second-serve points compared to the German’s 3-of-11.
Azarenka faces Barty next.
“She’s established herself pretty well where she is,” Azarenka said of her good friend. “With the pandemic restrictions, we haven’t seen much of her, so it’s harder to judge where her game is at, though she produced some incredible tennis at the Australian Open.
“She’s a very talented player and I’ve always been a fan of her game, how she plays and and handles herself.
“She has a lot of variety and pretty much every shot there is. I’m really looking forward to playing against her, but I also miss playing doubles with her! Hopefully we can play a few more again.”
Around the grounds, No 7 seed and fellow-Belarusian Sabalenka won a rematch against Kudermetova, edging out the No 32 seed from Russia, 7-6(4) 6-4.
A break down for much of the opener, Sabalenka saved set point in the 10th game before winning the tiebreak, and earned the decisive break of serve in the 9th game of the second after neither woman was challenged on serve in the first 8 games.
In the high-quality contest, Sabalenka struck 18 winners to just 11 unforced errors to improve to 2-0 in tour-level matches against the Russian.
“It definitely was a battle, and she played really well,” Sabalenka said during her on-court interview. “Her serve was unbelievable today.
“I couldn’t do anything against it today, and I think I was just lucky to get the break!
“I kept telling myself to play aggressive, keep going and put pressure on her. I just kept saying that to myself and it worked really well today.”
Sabalenka is looking to reach her first quarter-final at either of the Sunshine Swing tournaments, having reached just one 4th round at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells back in 2019.
Standing in her way is the No 19 seed Vondrousova, who upset Switzerland’s No 11 seed, Bencic, 4-6 6-4 6-4.
The Czech lefty held 12 break points, converting 4 to eke out the win, and struck 29 winners to 26 unforced errors, while Bencic had 33 winners but was undone by 45 unforced errors.
Two evenly matched sets opened the clash and paved the way for a fascinating tussle that followed in the decider, where there were no break points through 4-4.
Vondrousova’s crosscourt backhand winner queued up the first chance of the set, and she took the 5-4 lead with a break after a rally ended with a netted forehand by Bencic.
Serving for the match, Vondrousova suddenly faced break point herself after another of her drop-shots went awry, but the Czech powered her way out of trouble to reach match point and made her way into the round of 16.
“It was such a tough match,” Vondrousova said on-court, after her win. “[I’m] friends with Belinda, so it was kind of tough, and I’m just happy to be through. I served well, and I think it was a great match.”