March 30, 2021

On Solid Ground

I admit I haven't been the biggest believer in Ash Barty over the last year, and a lot of that has been because I wasn't really paying attention back in 2019 when she had her breakthrough. It felt like her French Open title, which came without facing a single player in the top ten, was a bit of a one off. And the fact that the altered ranking rules allowed her to keep her #1 ranking at the end of last year after not playing since February just added to my confusion.

Of course that ignored the rest of her accomplishments two years ago -- her first big trophy in Miami, where she beat three top ten players, her WTA Championship to close out the season, four titles in total and another two finals to boot. And while some players have been able to hold onto 2019 ranking points even when they tried and failed to defend them last year, Barty hasn't really gotten a chance to prove those successes weren't just flukes.

That is, until she came back to Miami.

Still the top seed, the twenty-four year old got off to a bit of a shaky start, facing match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova in her opener before powering through for the win. And that wasn't her only test -- in a roller coaster fourth round against three-time champ Victoria Azarenka, Barty went three lopsided sets in just under two hours, and she was pushed to a decider again yesterday in the quarters by Aryna Sabalenka.

Nevertheless, she's still alive and kicking and, now into the final four in Miami, has her first real opportunity to back up her 2019 run.

For a spot in the championship match, of course, Barty still has to get through world #5 Elina Svitolina, who can be spotty at times and has suffered some surprising losses in recent months, but she too has passed some tough tests over the past week and will be hungry for a big title of her own. She has a 5-1 record against Australian, too, which could give her some confidence. At the very least, this could be biggest test yet of whether Barty deserves to stay at the top.

In a similar situation to Barty is young Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who likewise was MIA last year after a breakthrough 2019. Ranked out of the top 150 at the start of that season, she had to qualify for the Australian Open, but really hit her stride in the spring, stunning the world with a title in Indian Wells and going on to win the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams in the final -- technically, in both finals.

But unlike Barty, her ensuing absense was due to injury rather than travel restrictions and lasted several months longer. That could explain why she's struggled a bit more in her comeback, going three sets in four of the five matches she played before Miami. And while the fact that I watched what she can do a little more closely during that run in New York makes me a little more forgiving of her remaining near the top of the rankings, you have to feel her meteoric rise could make her place there a little more tenuous.

Still, she's done well to prove her mettle over the past week. After a fairly straightforward win over Tereza Martincova in her opener, she edged out American Amanda Anisimova, who's had a complicated few months to say the least, in a thriller and then took out Garbiñe Muguruza, one of the strongest players of the season so far, in another tight one.

In today's last quarterfinal, Andreescu will take on unseeded but spectacularly impressive Sara Sorribes Tormo -- she won her first career title at the start of the month in Guadalajara and in Miami has already defeated Aussie runner-up Jen Brady, Elena Rybakina, and 2020 standout Ons Jabeur. Making the semis would by far be the biggest accomplishment of the Spaniard's career, and if the favorite is at all off her game, this could be an opportunity to pounce.

Whatever the case, it sure feels like last year's comeback stories have finally found their footing for the not-so-new-anymore season. And how they perform over the next few days will go a long way to proving their place. That's not to say a loss would derail everything, but a few more wins now sure would be extra sweet.

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