Coming into their final in Miami on Saturday, Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova had been the WTA’s not-quite-yet duo of 2019. The Australian and the Czech had made steady progress since the previous summer. They had begun to use their very different talents more effectively than they had in the past. They had recorded promising wins: Pliskova with her title in Brisbane, and run to the Australian Open semifinals; Barty with her runner-up appearance in Sydney, and single-handed takedown of the U.S. in Fed Cup. Each woman seemed to be on the cusp of something big, yet neither had won a title as significant as the Miami Open.
That, obviously, had to change for one of them this weekend. For most of the first set, it was a toss-up as to who it might be. In their four previous meetings, Barty and Pliskova had played five tiebreakers, and two of their matches had gone to final-set deciders. Their rallies are tricky chess matches between two players with opposing strengths: While the 6’1” Pliskova tries to use her pinpoint timing to power the ball into the corners, the 5’5” Barty tries to do whatever she can—slice, drive, drop, charge the net—to disrupt that timing. After a choppy, rhythmless, momentumless, low-decibel first set, they found themselves in another breaker. Then, suddenly, the match and title were decided in six quick points.
In those six points, Barty showed off the variety of spins, paces, and ideas that are at the heart of her easy, rangy talent. At 1-1, she feathered a backhand drop-shot winner that virtually no one in the stadium could have seen coming. At 2-1, she popped a forehand winner into the corner. At 3-1, she hit an ace. And at 4-1, she sent a hard slice backhand so close to the baseline that it caught Pliskova off-guard and drew an error. Barty wouldn’t lose another point in the tiebreaker, and Pliskova would never recover.
“I think it was important for me to make it physical,” Barty told ESPN’s Pam Shriver afterward. “I know that Kaja [Pliskova] really has the ability to hit you off the court and take it away from you. I had to have my running shoes on today, to try to make as many balls as possible.”
By the second set, Pliskova had mostly taken off her own running shoes. She had played two three-set matches earlier in the week, and had finished her semifinal with Simona Halep after midnight on Friday. After slogging through two 10-minutes service games to start the second set against Barty, Pliskova told her coach, Conchita Martinez, that she was “dead.”
In the NFL games that are normally played in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, some quarterbacks are known as “game managers”—rather than making spectacular plays, they’re job is to avoid unforced errors. Once Pliskova hit the wall, Barty became a tennis version of a game manager the rest of the way, and she did it well. She won 16 of 18 points on her serve, finished with 15 aces, and played with the right mix of safety and forcefulness.
“I had to make the most of it,” Barty said of Pliskova’s fatigue. “I think it was important for me to to try to do the right things, and enjoy the moment as well.”
The moment has arrived for the 22-year-old Barty. She becomes the latest title winner in a WTA season that has seen no repeat victors so far; and on Monday she’ll enter the Top 10 with the wind at her back. Which is not a bad thing for the WTA. Barty is low-key likable off the court, and appealingly multi-dimensional on it. Like the Aussies of old, she’s also an accomplished doubles player; she reached the dubs final this week with Victoria Azarenka. Few players on either tour have a smoother service motion, and few alternate between one-handed slice and two-handed drive backhands as naturally as she does.
When Barty first cracked the Top 10 earlier in the week, she was asked how it felt. “Blood good,” she said with a smile, as any Aussie might. The Australian tennis tradition is in a new set of hands; it’s hard to ask for any better than Barty’s.