Miami 2021: Defending champ Barty impresses, but Swiatek downed by Konjuh

No3 Halep withdraws with injury, leaving 10 Major champions among last 32

Ashleigh Barty
Ashleigh Barty (Photo: Getty Images / LTA)

A superb line-up of matches featured the cream of women’s tennis—the kind of schedule that would normally pack out a tournament. Yet the Hard Rock Stadium has been a shadow of its 2019 self.

Fan numbers are limited to a maximum of 1,000 for each session, with tickets allocated on only three courts. So in Miami 2021, on a hot and humid Saturday, the opening match in the women’s draw began in near silence—other than the vocal striking of one of the players, Jelena Ostapenko.

The former Major champion, unseeded this week, took on the defending champion and world No1 Ashleigh Barty, but with another Major champion, Iga Swiatek, playing at the same time on the second show-court, and Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic occupying two more courts, any fans braving the midday heat were thinly spread.

So what else on this smorgasbord of women’s tennis might tempt the fans? Only six seeds of the 32 had lost before their allotted third-round stage, and none of the top eight—though that changed abruptly just as play got under way with the announcement of the withdrawal of world No3 Simona Halep with a shoulder injury.

Even without Halep, there were 10 Major champions among the 31, and in the top half alone—the section that played on this steamy Saturday—six remained, with three former Miami champions to boot.

That several of these big names played one another made for some particularly interesting match-ups, including that Barty-Ostapenko showdown.

Petra Kvitova would play former Miami champion Johanna Konta in the cooler night session.

World No5 Elina Svitolina took on No30 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova in the knowledge that their last meeting, in Abu Dhabi, had gone 7-6(8) in her favour in the third set after she saved two match points.

World No8 Aryna Sabalenka, who won that Abu Dhabi title for her third trophy in a row, faced No32 seed Veronika Kudermetova, the woman who lost out to Sabalenka in that Abu Dhabi final.

And in contrast with all these youthful champions, there was the battle of the 30-something former Major winners and No1s, Victoria Azarenka against Angelique Kerber. The two had met many times between 2012 and 2016, but just once since, in Monterrey in 2019, which Azarenka won to go 8-1 against the German. What is more, Azarenka had won in Miami three times, though not since having her son at the end of 2016.

But first to the current No1. Barty certainly likes the hot Florida conditions, but faced match point on the way to her opening win this week, in her first match outside Australia since February 2020. Nevertheless, she arrived in Miami with nine wins this season, after winning the Yarra Valley Classic and reaching the quarters of the Australian Open.

And things began smoothly for the Aussie, who needs a strong run to hold on to the No1 ranking over Naomi Osaka—one of those fellow Major champions still in the draw.

Barty had to save four break points in the opening game, but she held on, and then immediately turned the tables to break Ostapenko, whose serving, not for the first time, let her down through the set.

The Latvian got on the board in the fourth game, but could not make up for that early break, and Barty served it out, 6-3, though it took her six set points to do so.

However, the Barty serve wavered briefly, Ostapenko broke, and held for 2-0. But the advantage did not last: Barty’s craft, accuracy and tactical smartness broke down the big shot-making of Ostapenko, she broke back, and made a run of six games and with two more breaks to serve out the match, 6-2, in just 70 minutes.

She afterwards said of her tactics:

“The goal today was to try to bring the tennis back to my kind of tempo and my kind of rhythm as often as possible and as quickly as possible. She obviously has the ability to take that away from you quite quickly, particularly off serve and first shot and off her returns. So it was about being patient at times and making sure we tried our best to neutralize and then bring the game back in our favour.”

Across on Court 1, things were not as comfortable for No15 seed Swiatek. The teenager took on young Croat Ana Konjuh, herself a top-20 player as a teenager almost four years ago. However, Konjuh, now ranked 338 and playing with a wild card, had been halted in her early success by four elbow surgeries.

Now, with a slew of ITF events under her belt since the tour returned from the coronavirus lockdown, she won back-to-back main-tour matches this week for the first time since those elbow problems, including a victory over No18 seed Madison Keys.

Konjuh carried on where she left off, too, to take the first set against Swiatek, 6-3, but she could not take advantage of five break points in the second and instead, the smart and varied play of the French Open champion broke twice to level the match, 6-2.

Such was the heat and humidity combination that the two women were allowed a 10 minute break before playing the third set. On their return, it was once again Konjuh’s angles and speed through the court that earned more break chances in the third game, and a struggling Swiatek conceded another break to go down 4-1.

Konjuh served out another impressive win, 6-2, and will next play Anastasija Sevastova, who received the walkover from Halep.

Swiatek afterwards acknowledged how well her opponent had played:

“The only thing I’m like angry about is my second serve because she was attacking it a lot of times, and I didn’t really have any idea what should I change. She put a lot of pressure on me, and that’s why I was making more double faults than usual… Yeah, I’m really happy for her that she’s playing so good after so many problems that she had. I think she’s a good example of a nice comeback and just believing in yourself. It’s really nice.”

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