The Miami Open is one of the four top stops on with women’s tour, a Premier Mandatory, where the 96 women, plus dozens more in the qualifying rounds, are whittled down to one champion. That this year’s title match would be contested by two reigning Major champions, and neither of them named Williams, made it something out of the ordinary.
Eleven times in the last 20 years, either Serena or Venus Williams had won the title—eight and three times respectively. And this would be only the eighth time since that same year, 1998, that the final did not feature at least one of those sisters.
But here were two fresh stars who, despite winning Majors last year, were playing in their first Premier Mandatory final and playing one another for the first time.
Sloane Stephens, just as she had in New York last September, gave the home crowd a woman to cheer. Jelena Ostapenko, the extrovert Latvian who wowed Roland Garros just a day after turning 20, was the youngest Miami finalist in almost a decade and could become the first titlist for her far-off nation.
Both had overcome tough draws, including Major champions, with their own exciting brands of attacking, full-blooded tennis. Stephens beat Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka, Ostapenko beat Petra Kvitova and one of the form players of 2018, No4 seed Elina Svitolina.
And remarkably, both women had surged from outside the top 60 a year ago to be within touching distance of new career highs. Stephens would debut in the top 10—at No9—no matter the result in Miami. A win for Ostapenko would take her to No4.
There was, too, little to choose between after 10 days at Crandon Park. Stephens had won 67 games, and spent around eight and a half hours on court; Ostapenko had won 65 games and spent an hour and a quarter on court.
It was, all things considered, an intriguing final and a significant first showdown between two women who could go on to dominate through the coming decade.
Perhaps with good reason, both began edgily, each going for winners, each firing errors, and both struggling to find their first serves with any consistency. The first four games summed up the nerves: four breaks. And Ostapenko faced a break point in the fifth, too, before coming to the net for a volley winner and holding with a big forehand, 3-2.
At last, Stephens’ serve began to kick in, she held to love, and worked another break chance. Ostapenko tried to force through on the forehand wing, but Stephens defended superbly to draw the error and a break. The Stadium Arena rose to applaud their player: Would that bring a decisive swing?
Another hold and Stephens would serve for the set, but a double fault brought up yet another break point, and a forehand error put them back level, 5-5.
Still this seesawing match strewn with errors was not done. Both conceded another break: they would decide it in a tie-break, standing at 35 points apiece.
Ostapenko had played and won five tie-breaks in the tournament already, but her tennis was still all over the place, while Stephens played the percentages. The American almost came unstuck as Ostapenko found a couple of pieces of magic—one a drop shot winner from the baseline—but Stephens converted her fourth set point, 7-6(5).
The tennis had been far from their best: Ostapenko 29 errors to 18 winners, Stephens 14 errors for only three winners. The difference, in the end, came down to those errors: Stephens defended the better, forcing her opponent to go for too much too soon.
The younger woman, though, was not about to back off. She managed to break down Stephens’ serve in the first game of the second set, but gave the advantage straight back. This time, it was the American who held serve first, 2-1, and Ostapenko looked hurried and out of ideas. Stephens broke again, and held with a confident drop/forehand combo and then an ace, 4-1.
The Latvian’s serve continued to let her down, draining any confidence she may have left, and the forehand collapsed. Another break, and Stephens served for the set. She did so in style, to love, to win her first title since the US Open and a place in the top 10.
Ostapenko, after a superb tournament, will surely be disappointed by 48 errors to 21 winners—the statistics had been nearer the reverse in earlier matches—but she can turn on the smile with aplomb, and had warm words for all concerned.
However the closing line, and the biggest smile, belonged to Stephens:
“I always play well in the US I don’t know why—but [to the fans], I think it must be you guys.”
Next year, it will be a new and very different stage for this tournament. But the Miami Open is sure to deliver those same boisterous, enthusiastic crowds.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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