Ashleigh Barty – Grand Slam champion?

Australia’s Ashleigh Barty stepped on to court for the Miami Open final, the biggest of her life, already assured of a place in the top ten when the rankings are updated on Monday. But she proceeded to put the perfect seal on that ascent by dismantling world #5 Karolina Pliskova in straight sets, 7-6 6-3, to claim the title, her first at Premier Mandatory level. It is the latest in a string of successes for Barty so far this season, which also includes a run to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.

She manufactured that run at the Australian Open with some excellent serving and an ability to out-think and outmanoeuvre opponents. With her wicked slice backhand, a forehand into which she can inject surprising, sudden pace, and superbly soft hands at the net, she carved through the first week before outlasting Maria Sharapova in the last 16. However, she was overpowered with ease by Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, showing a concerning vulnerability against a big-hitter.

But against the powerful Pliskova, she demonstrated that she has improved even since January. Pliskova may not have been at her very best, but she nonetheless landed some heavy blows, particularly in the first set. Yet Barty stood strong and trusted in her own game, which was superb. She was particularly effective from the line, serving 15 aces, nine more than Pliskova managed, winning 86% of the points behind her first serve and hitting just two double faults.

Her cause was aided by Pliskova’s low first serve percentage, with the Czech managing to land just 57% of her first deliveries. But whilst Pliskova usually defends her second serve well, Barty cut it to ribbons, winning 55% of the points against it. Barty herself managed to win 55% of the points behind her own second deal and, all told, won 25 more receiving points than her opponent. That, more than anything else, explains her victory in the Sunshine State.

It will also surely give Barty’s quest for a maiden Grand Slam title in singles fresh impetus. Frustratingly for the Australian, the beginning of the clay court season is imminent. Whilst Barty has played some good tennis on the terre battue, it is not a surface that favours her net-rushing game. As a result, it is hard to see her posing a serious challenge over the coming months to the likes of defending Roland Garros champion Simona Halep or Elina Svitolina, whose counter-punching style is well-suited to the red clay.

But come the grass-court swing, if Barty is still fit and firing, discount her chances at your peril. She has a game built for grass-court tennis in an era when fewer and fewer players are truly comfortable on the hallowed lawns at the All England Club. That is not to say that she will certainly be amongst the favourites for the title. The power of Kvitova and Serena Williams is a strong argument indeed in their favour. Meanwhile, Angelique Kerber, the reigning champion at Wimbledon, has exactly the sort of guile and court craft that is so difficult to combat on a slick grass court.

Barty, however, is looking increasingly comfortable in the latter stages of the biggest events and on her day can beat anyone. Besides time is on her side. The Australian does not turn 23 until April and looks to have a long and illustrious career ahead of her, in both singles and doubles. But in the wake of this breakthrough win in Miami, don’t expect more success to be too long in coming for Barty. Indeed, 2019 could just be the year of Ashleigh Barty.

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