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Ashleigh Barty wins first Premier Mandatory title, caps brilliant WTA March

Matt Zemek

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Steve Mitchell -- USA TODAY Sports

The month of March for the WTA is over, if you don’t count the qualifying rounds of the Charleston tour stop (where Tennis With An Accent’s Briana Foust — @4TheTennis — will be on site providing photos and insights).

March Madness could not have gone much better for the WTA. Yes, it could have featured a healthy Serena Williams, something which will hopefully happen later this season, but other than that, this month was a terrific advertisement for the women’s game, capped by Ashleigh Barty’s superb performance in a Miami Open final victory over Karolina Pliskova.

People in tennis and other sports easily get hung up on the question of whether stars or dominant players emerge. Focusing on this question is fine and good and necessary; getting HUNG UP on the question (meaning that one fixates on it to the exclusion or diminishment of other competing realities) is the true problem.

I am very interested in whether a star or dominant player will emerge on the WTA Tour this year. I am certainly focused on the question of when — or if — one player will very clearly separate herself from the pack on a regular basis. However, I won’t get hung up on that question, because the main point when evaluating the WTA or the ATP is not solely found in who wins or loses; the main point is the overall quality of the tour.

In March, the WTA’s quality was considerable. Better yet, the quality emerged in new ways.

Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki’s baseline consistency; Sloane Stephens’ ability to mix the pace of her shots; Angelique Kerber’s counterpunching; Naomi Osaka’s relentless hitting and Petra Kvitova’s pure power — these are familiar parts of the women’s tennis scene over the past 15 months, since the start of the 2018 season. Kiki Bertens inserted herself into the conversation at times, but even though the WTA produced four separate major champions in 2018, the collection of champions was not overwhelmingly surprising. Great players took turns playing well. This was not 2002 in men’s tennis, when relatively mediocre players competed for important championships and someone had to win merely by being part of the tournament. The same winners would not emerge from one tournament to the next, but the winners that did emerge played at a high level… and they emerged from a recognizable group of top-tier contenders.

What the month of March in 2019 has done for the WTA is twofold: This month expanded the pool of top-tier championship contenders on tour, and it also crowned champions who won with playing styles which are less common in modern women’s tennis.

Ash Barty’s Miami championship is notable on its own terms — the young Australian, who took a hiatus from tennis to try her hand at cricket, has clearly evolved as a player. Her shots don’t break down. She plays better patterns and makes better adjustments, such as the move to a more slice-heavy approach against Pliskova in the first-set tiebreaker which ultimately decided Saturday’s match. Barty trailed by a break in numerous sets over the past week and a half and calmly recovered those breaks. She faced an uphill battle in the first set against Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals but stole the tiebreaker against the run of play, buying her enough time to outlast P3tra in a third set.

She is simply tougher, smarter, and a more complete player than she was last year.

One instructive aspect of Barty’s Miami tournament — evident in her win over Pliskova and that tiebreaker adjustment to a more slice-dominated approach — is that she has comfort in knowing when and how to play every shot in a diverse arsenal of weapons.

Hey… that sounds awfully familiar. It sounds a lot like the way Bianca Andreescu won Indian Wells.

The Australian Open final might have been a paradise for the power merchants — Osaka and Kvitova — and flat hitters such as Danielle Collins and Pliskova (the two losing semifinalists), but Indian Wells and Miami elevated a very different group of players, with the champions being two of the foremost exemplars of variety and finesse on tour.

As said above, the WTA now has an even deeper pool of title contenders, but March of 2019 hasn’t merely done that; it has done something more. It has injected a large dose of variety into the ranks of these title contenders. Winning big tournaments now requires more court-craft, at least if Andreescu and Barty are in your section of the draw. You will have to deal with these all-shot, all-court approaches to tennis.

People who follow women’s tennis have consistently discussed the tour’s depth and quality. Now it’s time to add “variety” to the WTA vocabulary entering April and clay season.

Depth of variety.

Variety of depth.

Depth of quality.

Quality of depth.

Quality of variety.

Variety of quality.

The WTA keeps adding to its title contenders, its lexicon, and its impressive big-tournament champions, with Ash Barty winning her first Premier Mandatory trophy in Miami.

March Madness was March Gladness for a WTA Tour which keeps adding new and delicious ingredients to its compelling mixture of performers.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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