MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Speaking from the trophy presentation platform shortly after she overwhelmed Karolina Pliskova on Saturday to win the Miami Open, Ashleigh Barty acknowledged her support team and told them, “You make this the best career I can choose.”
It wasn’t mere victory speech boilerplate. Barty, a chipper 22-year-old Australian, was a prodigy — a junior US Open champion at the age of 15 and a two-time Grand Slam doubles finalist at age 16. But the loneliness and stress of the touring life, combined with the runaway expectations of her compatriots, turned the true blue Aussie into someone just blue. Confused, exhausted and depressed, she felt burned out at 16.
Ashleigh Barty had 15 aces and became the 33rd different player to win a title in as many ATP and WTA tournaments this year when she beat Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (1), 6-3 on Saturday in the final of the Miami Open.
John Isner’s booming serve and a perfect 9-for-9 in tiebreakers has him back in the Miami Open finals. Standing in the way of a repeat title: “goalie” Roger Federer.
When Barty left the WTA Tour in September 2014, her singles ranking was down to No. 129. A once-in-a-generation sporting polymath, she was soon playing professional cricket (she also carries a 10 handicap in golf without practicing). Cricket offered the stability and fellowship she yearned for, but she returned to tennis a year and a half later with the dark cloud lifted.
“I think I was, you know, an average cricketer,” Barty said in Saturday’s postmatch news conference. “And now I’m becoming a better tennis player. It was certainly an enjoyable time in my life. I think I found myself a little bit more as a person and I met an amazing group of girls and a new circle of friends, I suppose. But I think tennis was always my calling.”
It’s easy to see how, despite the challenges and side trips, tennis is Barty’s destiny. What she lacks in size she makes up in a fundamental feel for the ball. Many players share that quality but cannot reliably capitalize on it because they lack the feel for strategy and tactics that also seems innate in Barty.
Neither Miami Open finalist had won a prestigious WTA Premier Mandatory final going into Saturday’s title match, but Pliskova — a 6-foot-1, 27-year-old power server from the Czech Republic, is a former world No. 1 and Grand Slam finalist. If Pliskova is a WTA sledgehammer, Barty is the tour’s Swiss Army knife. She’s just 5-foot-5, but is speedy and blessed with finesse and a Roger Federer-like interest in using that oft-neglected tool, the slice.
Barty, the tournament’s No. 12 seed, delivered the first of her unexpected 15 aces to win the first game. Pliskova won the first point she served, but then Barty showed her hand. As a rally began to develop, Barty hit a heavily sliced one-handed backhand to Pliskova’s backhand sideline. The No. 5 seed tracked it and returned sharply crosscourt — where Barty was waiting to unload with both fists on the racket handle. She nailed a crisp, flat winner down the line. That’s essentially the Cliffs Notes edition of this clash, won by Barty 7-6 (1), 6-3.
As if Barty’s kaleidoscopic game (“I don’t think there is that many girls play this way,” Pliskova said afterward) wasn’t sufficient challenge, Pliskova was woozy with fatigue and seemed as averse to the daylight as a Miami Beach night owl. Pliskova had played all of her previous Miami Open matches at night. And while she was on court for just 10 minutes longer than Barty on average (at 1:43 per match), her Thursday night semifinal against No. 2 seed Simona Halep ended after 1 a.m. — and Pliskova was still awake after 4 a.m. on Friday morning.
“Yesterday, horrible.” Pliskova said. “Today a little bit better. But still not of course the best.”
Pliskova was able to impose her big game on Barty effectively at the start. Barty was visibly nervous early in the match, those ordinarily happy feet seeming wary. Pliskova broke her in the third game, but over the course of the next two games, Barty seemed to loosen up and tap into her ability to jerk an opponent all over the court. She might not have height on her side, but Barty’s size gives her a low center of gravity. Where most players run and stretch their legs with effort, she appears to roll, changing direction with the ease of a piece of rolling luggage with four wheels.
Among other things, that mobility enables Barty to deal effectively even with players who have the power to hit shots that take time away from an opponent, or who are capable of playing from on or inside the baseline. And Barty is speedy enough to redirect balls in rallies, and to bring her finesse into play. Understanding the game in both the small and big picture is also an asset.
Ashleigh Barty defeats Karolina Pliskova in straight sets 7-6 (1), 6-3 to become the first Australian to win the Miami Open.
“I have always tried to bring as much variety onto the court as possible,” Barty said. “For me, it’s always about trying to neutralize what your opponent’s doing. Obviously, there was a bit of a phase in women’s tennis where there was this big power, and strikers that were getting on top of rallies early. But I think the physicality in tennis has grown, which has allowed more players to neutralize off that big first ball and work their way into the points.”
Barty recovered from that first-set break and began to find the range on her groundstrokes. She recouped the break and ultimately forced a tiebreaker, elevating her game to rip through it 7-1. That spelled the end for Pliskova, whose lethargy and frustration were so obvious that Conchita Martinez could have brought her a sleeper sofa instead of advice on a coaching visit after Pliskova was broken early in the second set.
What’s wrong, Martinez wondered. “I’m dead,” Pliskova replied.
“Today was not the day,” Pliskova said after the match. “I think because she plays the slice [so much], so it’s a little bit different than if you play somebody who is just playing normal forehand and normal backhand. I think she has dangerous game, playing the slice on the backhand, and then she can really put a lot of pressure with the forehand. It’s tough when you don’t feel 100 percent.”
Although Barty has been back on the tour since mid-2016, it feels like this win has brought her full circle. It ensures that she will be in the top 10 when the new rankings are issued Monday.
“I needed to take some time to step back and realize how much that I wanted it and how much I do love it,” Barty said of her break from tennis, and the game itself. “I came back with a different perspective. I really did.”
One thing that hasn’t changed during what she called her “journey” is her native pride. She loves playing in Australia, and wearing and the green and gold anywhere in the world. She said her happiest memory in tennis until Saturday came in a Fed Cup doubles match. And her worst moment, she said, was her loss early this year in front of her fellow countrymen in the Sydney final.
“That hurt, for sure,” Barty said. “I mean, I think that’s why I keep coming back. Why I love the sport is that you have these amazing moments and you have these heartbreaking moments. But the journey in the middle is pretty bloody good.”