If the first two months of the year belonged to Naomi Osaka, the last two weeks have belonged to Ashleigh Barty.
Osaka shone in Australia, dropping just one set on her way to winning her fourth Grand Slam title and extending her winning run to 21 matches. At the Miami Open she was the focus of much of the first week as she marched into the quarter-finals, keeping alive her hopes of displacing Barty as world No 1 after the tournament.
But when Osaka’s winning streak was snapped by Maria Sakkari, attention turned to Barty – and she didn't disappoint, becoming only the sixth player to win back-to-back titles in Miami after Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
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While she said afterwards that she doesn’t feel that she "belongs with that group", her status at the top of the game has been reinforced over the last fortnight.
This was a big tournament for Barty, not just because of the potential implications on her position as world No 1, but because it was her first outside of Australia since February 2020 and the start of six months away from home.
"It was quite hard to leave and quite emotional to me," she said after finally arriving in Miami following a 50-hour journey from Australia.
The arduous trip nearly proved to be longer than her stay in Miami as she scraped through against qualifier Kristina Kucova in the opening round, saving a match point to win in three sets. But after a nervy start, Barty got better and better as the tournament went on.
She swept past Jelena Ostapenko before three-set wins over 14th seed Victoria Azarenka and seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka, and then produced her best performance of the week to beat fifth seed Elina Svitolina in the semi-finals. She was also in firm control of the final before Bianca Andreescu retired with an ankle injury in the second set.
Barty said she didn’t have "anything to prove to anyone" after winning the title, but her performance over the last two weeks proved she is deserving of her place at the top of the game.
That has been questioned lately due to Osaka winning two Grand Slams in the last six months while Barty only returned to action earlier this year after missing most of 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Barty says the questions about her No 1 position don’t bother her – "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" – but her display in Miami was a firm reminder that she is the top-ranked player in the world for a reason. She might have benefitted from the frozen rankings during the start of the pandemic, but she got to No 1 after an excellent 2019 which saw her win Miami, Roland-Garros, Birmingham and the WTA Finals. Now she’s won two titles this year, has a 14-2 record, and has won 14 of her last 17 matches against top-10 opponents.
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She will now stay as world No 1 for at least another five weeks – which would take her to 74 weeks in total - and will move up the all-time standings above Caroline Wozniacki on 71 weeks, with only eight players ahead of her.
There’s every chance Barty will strengthen her position over the next few months too. She’s staying in America to play in Charleston before heading to Europe for Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, and Roland-Garros, where she will be looking to win for the second time in three years, having not defended her title in 2020. While Osaka is yet to enjoy much success on clay, Barty has the fourth-best winning percentage among all WTA players over the last five years (74.4 per cent). She’s also won on grass – and made it clear after lifting the title in Miami that she is looking forward to returning to the surface after two years away.
"I'm still counting down the days to the grass season, without a doubt."
Barty’s form makes the next few months on the WTA Tour all the more fascinating. Neither her nor Osaka have yet dominated women's tennis for long periods - despite Barty's 70-plus weeks at the top of the rankings - but there is an opportunity to do that over the next part of the season. While Barty doesn't sound like she is putting too much pressure on herself - "if it turns out we have a great clay court season, that's fantastic, and if we don't, then it's not the end of the world" - it appears an important few months for her as she starts a lengthy period away from home and looks to extend her stay as world No 1 for even longer.
Having faced some questions at the start of the year, the Australian now looks the player to beat.
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