The matchup for the Miami Open women’s singles final was mouth-watering: a first-time meeting between Ashleigh Barty and Bianca Andreescu. These two women had each earned Grand Slam singles titles in 2019, Barty at Roland Garros, Andreescu at the US Open. But Barty’s 2020 tennis year was over by the end of February. Injuries and the pandemic kept Andreescu completely away from competition in 2020.
As the 2021 pro tennis year gingerly continued, anticipation was high for what surely had all the ingredients of a lengthy, compelling rivalry. Barty and Andreescu are each wonderful stylists, armed with a wide range of shots —pace and spin, volleys and serves, craft and concentration. The two also bring their own brand of intensity to competition, Barty with classic Australian understatement, Andreescu with an overt passion all her own.
But it was clear from the start of this match that the Andreescu fuel tank was near empty, a logical reality given her tough workload this week—four of her five victories went the distance, including a third-set tiebreaker win over Maria Sakkari that ended at 1:35 a.m. Friday morning. And when she took a fall early in the second set, Andreescu eventually retired, with Barty leading, 6-3, 4-0.
“It feels like I played three tournaments in one with all the time I had on court,” said Andreescu, “which is awesome considering I haven't been playing a lot of tournaments over the last couple of months.”
Said Barty, “I think that's going to be one of the first of many battles for us. I just hope from now on they are healthy and we can both stay out on the court and fight for everything that we can give.”
Where does this Miami result point for these great players? For Andreescu, the road now likely heads home, where she will seek to rehab, resume training and, hopefully, soon enough, return gloriously for the European clay court season—and, believe it or not, make only her second appearance in the main draw at Roland-Garros. “I love playing on clay,” said Andreescu. “I feel very strong to last on clay this season. Been putting a lot of work in, and that showed this week so I want to continue to do that. Hopefully I can do very well.”
Fingers are crossed for Andreescu’s health. Prior to the pandemic, she suffered her share of injuries. Andreescu’s pain continued to surface in Miami. But is this merely a matter of kicking off the cobwebs? Or is it a sign of persistent danger, a predilection that threatens to sporadically preclude Andreescu from competing week in and week out?
Let’s hope this is not the case. With everything from tenacity to weaponry and court savvy, Andreescu makes the court come alive. The chance to see her mix it up versus Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Jennifer Brady and a host of other contenders is incredibly appealing. And then, of course, there’s Barty. Praising the world number one, Andreescu said just after the match, “She doesn't play like a lot of the players on tour. She likes to mix it up, like me. That's not fun to play against. I guess I'm getting a little taste of my own medicine.”
As for Barty, she has learned so much from her native land: the Australian gestalt of subdued deportment, athleticism and hard work. But this year there’s an added element. Barty is taking an old school Australian approach to the epic tennis season that hasn’t been seen much for nearly half a century. Due to Australia’s quarantine laws, Barty has opted not to return home until after the US Open. This is how it used to be for the Aussies of the ‘50s and ‘60s—from March ‘til October, on the road all over the world, four racquets under the arm and a couple of suitcases in tow. This being professional tennis in the 21st century, such austerity will not be the case for Barty and her ensemble. That said, the road will be a long as she competes across continents.
Then again, if you played like Barty, you’d likely never be bored on a tennis court. The way Barty wins matches provides significant insight into the development process. At 5’ 5”, she is not physically imposing. Many an instructor might well have issued Barty a very limited, baseline-based game, based heavily on groundstrokes and court coverage. But she is an Australian, a land with a rich tradition of all-court awareness, of doubles and volleys and, as Barty has shown, the nuanced ways a slice backhand can smoothly collaborate with the two-hander. Add to that a sheer love of practice—Barty today cited how much she enjoys working on her serve—and the overall game is richly textured.
There is also a playful sensibility that’s long been part of the Australian tennis culture, a strong awareness that the chance to make a living at a sport is darn fun. To watch Barty wield a racquet is to see that most of all, tennis is a game. The work is intended to fuel the play, not the opposite—a joy for sport demonstrated in Barty’s comments on the next leg in this uncertain tennis year. “If it turns out we have a great clay-court season, that's fantastic,” she said, “and if we don't, then it's not the end of the world.”