Ash Barty survives a “real tussle” with Victoria Azarenka in Miami

Ash Barty survives a “real tussle” with Victoria Azarenka in Miami

“You’ve got to do it with a smile on your face, and be extremely appreciative and grateful that we’ve got the opportunity to do that," said the world No. 1.

“The simple thing for me is the weather,” Ash Barty said a few days ago. “You know, it’s blue skies, sun’s shining. We’re getting to play a sport that we love and we’re getting to do what we love.

“You’ve got to do it with a smile on your face, and be extremely appreciative and grateful that we’ve got the opportunity to do that.”

As you can probably tell from the words above, Barty has brought a breath of fresh air and perspective to an often-overheated Miami Open. Instead of complaining about not being able to go out at night, she has talked about how pleased she is to be in a safe environment. Instead of bemoaning the reduced prize money or the 48 hours she spent making her roundabout way from Brisbane to Miami, she had this to say after her opening-round win over Kristina Kucova, in which she came back from 2-5 in the third set to win:

“It was just a hell of a fight, it was a hell of a match,” Barty said. “A match like that today I think just reiterates how much I love this sport and how much I love the battle and love the fight.”

Barty had to brace herself to make this trip and play this tournament. It’s the first time she has left her home country and rejoined the tour outside of Australia since the pandemic began, and she probably won’t be heading back anytime soon. The plan is for her and her coach, Craig Tyzzer, to spend the rest of the season on the road.

Getty Images

“It’s an adventure for us. It's a new experience. It's something that we haven't done before, Tyz and I,” Barty said. “When leaving Australia, it was quite hard to leave and quite emotional to me. But I think we’re excited to have the opportunity to play the whole season. So I think we’re looking at staying away the whole season.”

So far Barty’s upbeat attitude has paid dividends. After shaking the rust and jet lag off in her opener, she has beaten two former Grand Slam champions—Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets on Saturday, and No. 14 seed Victoria Azarenka in a whiplash-inducing three sets on Monday, 6-1, 1-6, 6-2.

“I don’t like roller coasters,” the risk-averse Aussie said, “so I think roller-coasters during a tennis match is enough for me. I think the first two sets probably had some pretty big momentum swings, but I think the third set was a real tussle.”

It was a match of contrasting tactics, as each player tried to lure the other onto her turf. Barty sliced her backhand, slowed the pace and then sped it up, brought Azarenka forward, and came forward herself. Azarenka tried to make the points into more one-dimensional baseline hitting contests. As Barty said, the third set was touch and go until 2-2. The difference was in how they handled the break points they faced: At 2-2, Barty saved one with a service winner; at 2-3, Azarenka was broken when she sent a forehand over the baseline.

“It was just about staying the course,” Barty said, “and over time trying to execute my game plan as best I can, and try and kind of bring it back onto my racquet where I felt I was in control a little bit more in that third set and had a little bit better court position.”

Getty Images

Barty says she has worked her “backside off” to be ready for this season, and that she doesn’t mind the Miami heat, which reminds her of the summer humidity back in Brisbane. While it’s true that she’s just getting her bearings on tour again, and seems happy simply to be playing matches under blue skies, Barty does have things to prove in the coming months. The world No. 1 hasn’t won a major since Roland Garros in 2019; meanwhile, the world No. 2, Naomi Osaka, has won the last two, and is on a 22-match win streak. Last week, when Barty was asked about Osaka’s run of good form, she began by saying this:

“Well, I mean, it’s hard for me to comment purely because I don’t watch a lot of tennis,” Barty said. “I’ve probably seen all of 30 or 40 minutes of tennis over the last 12 or 13 months. It’s not something that I ever flick on and watch. Having not played Naomi, either, it’s hard for me to really comment.”

Barty went on to give Osaka her props—“she’s certainly on an exceptional run,” she said. But I’m sure she would love to be the one to put that exceptional run to the end. Right now, the WTA is flush with talent and personality, but a defining Next Gen rivalry has yet to develop. Barty vs. Osaka would be a fun one, and it would be nice if it could start in the final in Miami, wouldn’t it?

First things first, though: Next up for Barty will be Aryna Sabalenka. In Barty’s words, that could be a hell of a fight.