World No 1 Ashleigh Barty defied the ranking critics on Thursday by reaching the final at the Miami Open presented by Itaú where she will defend the title she won in 2019 before the pandemic struck last year, forcing the tournament to become the first to be cancelled against Bianca Andreescu.
Bianca [Andreescu], I haven’t played her before, haven’t hit with her before, so it’s a fresh one for both of us but she’s proven time and time again she loves the big matches, the big tournaments and has the physicality to win them. Ash Barty
Barty fired 27 winners in an impressive showing over 5th-seeded Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, winning 6-3 6-3 in the 90 minute semi-final.
The Aussie, who did not travel last year, has gone from strength to strength in Miami since saving a match point in her opening victory over Slovakian qualifier Kristina Kucova.
“Every single match I felt like I’ve done something a little bit better, and that’s all you can ask,” said Barty, who opted not to travel outside Australia last year amid the coronavirus pandemic and withdrew from tournaments in Doha and Dubai in March with a leg injury.
She received treatment for an abdominal issue between sets on Thursday, but vowed she would be ‘right as rain’ for a title showdown on Saturday against Canadian Bianca Andreescu, the No 8 seed, who took out Maria Sakkari of Greece, the conqueror of World No 2 Naomi Osaka in the quarter-finals.
The top seed is now one win away from becoming the first player since Serena Williams to defend a title at the tournament.
Coming into the semi-final, much was made of Svitolina’s 5-1 head-to-head advantage, factoring in Fed Cup results, but Barty captured their most recent meeting at the final of the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals.
“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.”
In the end it was a relatively comfortable win for Barty against an opponent who leaked 34 unforced errors in the process, and it improves her win-loss record to 12-2 this season, and 11 straight wins in Miami.
“It wasn’t easy by any means, I thought I played a good match,” she said in her on-court interview. ” I tried to be aggressive and I was able to execute.
“It’s a bit of a fine line sometimes, but certainly happy with how today went.”
From the get-go the Aussie was on song, and converted a break point in the opening game of the match with a sensational forehand winner to take the early 1-0 lead.
Svitolina responded by trying to get back on serve but was thwarted by the World No 1, who delivered a huge serve to hold.
Barty had a chance to go up a double-break, but the Ukrainian resisted and held while, at 3-1, the top seed got another chance and she grabbed it to go up 4-1.
The double-break cushion didn’t last, though, as the 5th seed earned herself 2 break points in the very next game, and took one to narrow the gap.
Svitolina was made to work hard to save another break point in her very next service game, and again conjured up one of her own, but the Aussie serve was in full force and she safely held.
At 5-3 Barty earned 2 set points on her opponents serve and broke to seal the first set.
Before the second set could begin she called for the trainer and took a medical timeout off court for a abdominal issue.
The Ukrainian went on the offensive in the first game of the second set, gaining a break point, which Barty saved with her big serve.
At 2-1 the Aussie made the breakthrough to take a 3-1 lead but, again, it didn’t last long as Svitolina broke right back.
Determined to stay on track, Barty broke once more for a 4-2 lead, and cruised from there to serve out the match.
Barty broke 5 of Svitolina’s 9 service games, while the Aussie produced 27 winners to the Ukrainian’s 11.
In her post game press conference she spoke about what it felt like to be back in the final.
“It’s really exciting and obviously that’s the goal for every tournament you play in, you want to give yourself a chance to hold the title at the end, it’s an exciting opportunity now that we’re in another final in Miami,” Barty commented.
In that final on Saturday she will play Bianca Andreescu.
“Bianca [Andreescu], I haven’t played her before, haven’t hit with her before, so it’s a fresh one for both of us but she’s proven time and time again she loves the big matches, the big tournaments and has the physicality to win them,” she said.
The 24-year-old also said her latest match marked her best win in Miami.
“Yeah, I think it was,” she said. “I think [with] Elina, you have to produce your best tennis. Happy with the way we were able to execute today.”
Barty has secured the WTA’s No 1 ranking for at least another month and, fittingly, she now looks again like the best player in the world.
She is playing in her second final of the year, having won the Yarra Valley Classic title in February ahead of the Australian Open.
In Thursday’s night semi-final that lasted well beyond midnight, Andreescu defeated Maria Sakkari, 7-6(7) 3-6 7-6(4), to make her first final since winning the 2019 US Open.
It was yet another 3-set victory for the Canadian, seeded 8th, who fought back from a break down twice in the deciding set to beat Greece’s No 23 seed in a rain-delayed match that finished at 1.35am ET on Friday.
Andreescu has won her past 4 matches in 3 sets and has won 6 three-setters in a row overall, with 8 of her 11 matches this year having gone the distance.
She finally finished Sakkari off on her 3rd match point of the tiebreak, taking 2 points in a row off the Greek’s serve to go up 5-2.
The Canadian had double-faulted for just the 2nd time in the match on a pivotal point, giving Sakkari a break to go up 6-5 in the 3rd set, but Andreescu broke right back without dropping a point to send it into the decisive breaker.
This is Andreescu’s 3rd tournament back after a 16-month absence in the aftermath of a knee injury and she is trying to recapture the form of her breakthrough 2019 season when she won 3 tournaments, including the US Open.
Sakkari will rue her lost chances as she had set points in the 1st set, led 4-2 in the 3rd, and served for it at 6-5 in the decider, but Bianca Andreescu ended up winning the match full of momentum swings.
It started after Andreescu let a 4-1 lead slip away in the opening set and faced 2 set points in the tiebreak, and then opened up a 3-1 lead in the second set when things got turned around again.
Sakkari won 5 straight games, and 9 of the next 11, to not only take the second set, but build a 4-2 lead in the decider, forcing Andreescu to dig in as she won the next 3 games in a row to go up 5-4, but the Greek struck right back, holding for 5-all, and then broke for 6-5 and a chance to serve out the match.
In a final twist, Andreescu broke to love to take it to a 3rd set tiebreak and eventually closed out the 2-hour, 42-minute marathon on her 3rd match point.
“Against her I had no choice but to run to everything that I could and just fight until the end, because that’s what she was doing,” Andreescu said.
“She was really taking control of the points a lot of the time, and it was really tough, I’m not going to lie—and my whole game plan was to try to do that, because I knew she was going to do that, and it could have been either of us winning tonight.
“I’m just super happy that I pulled through that.”
Sakkari finished with 3 more winners, 25 to 22, but 6 more unforced errors, 52 to 46, and while the Greek also won more points in the match, 113 to 109, the Canadian won those that mattered the most.
Andreescu has now won 24 of her last 26 matches at WTA 1000s, and 33 of her last 34 at all levels in North America.
The 20-year-old is not just be battling Barty for the first time, she is also playing a World No 1 for the first time.
“Yeah, I’ve wanted to play her for a long time now, so I’m super excited for that,” the World No 9 said. “I know it’ll be a really tough match, but I’m really looking forward to it.”