Former cricket player Ashleigh Barty becomes first Australian winner at Miami Open

Ashleigh “Ash” Barty, who took a sabbatical from tennis five years ago to play professional cricket, made history at the Miami Open on Saturday, becoming the tournament’s first Australian winner – male or female.

Barty stands 5-5, relatively short by tennis standards, but she used her shot-making skills, a career-high 15 aces, and eagle-eye vision to neutralize the taller, big-serving fifth seed Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (7-1), 6-3.

It was the most prestigious title of Barty’s career and she will rise to No. 9 in the world rankings with the victory.

“I’ve had a very unique journey. It’s been two or three years since I’ve been coming back to the sport and I’ve had some heartbreaking losses but some pretty amazing moments, too,” Barty said after accepting her $1.3 million check.

The Aussie spent the past few years rising up the rankings after taking an extended break from tennis in 2014 to play for the Brisbane Heat in the women’s professional cricket league. At the time, she was a promising 17-year-old who had won the 2011 Wimbledon junior title and had success in doubles with Casey Dellacqua. But she was feeling burnout and decided she needed time away from the sport.

“I needed to take a break; otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be playing the game, to be honest,” she said. “It gave me an opportunity to go and relax and see what it was like to have a normal life because the tennis tour and life is very unique, and it’s not for everybody. I needed to take some time to step back and realize how much I wanted it and how much I do love it.”

She returned to tennis in 2016 with a renewed love for the sport and was ranked 325 in the world at the end of that season before soaring to No. 17 by the end of 2017.

This season, she reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, where she lost to Kvitova. She turned things around and beat Kvitova in the Miami Open quarterfinals last week.

“I was an average cricketer and I’m becoming a better tennis player,” Barty said. “The time off was certainly an enjoyable time in my life. I found myself a little bit as a person and met an amazing group of girls and new circle of friends, but I think tennis was always my calling.”

For the first time in WTA history, the first 14 tournaments of the season have been won by different players. The men’s tour has the same trend, as 19 tournaments have had 19 different winners thus far this year.

“That’s amazing, isn’t it?” Barty said. “The depth has grown over the last few years and I think anyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning. The margins are getting smaller and smaller.”

Entering the final, former world No. 1 Pliskova had won 21 matches this season, more than any other player on the women’s tour. The 6-1 Czech player had also racked up a tournament-leading 31 aces and a tour-best 177 aces for the season.

Despite the height gap, Barty proved to have a dangerous serve, as well. She had 15 aces to Pliskova’s six and won 86 percent of her first service points.

“It’s always been an important part of my game to allow myself to get in control of points early on,” Barty said. “I’m very fortunate to have had a coach, Jim Joyce who taught me everything I know and tried to teach me every shot in the book and create this Ash Barty style of tennis that is a little bit unique.”

Barty also took advantage of her excellent vision, challenging three second-set calls and having all three reversed. Two of them came in the opening game of the set, and Barty broke Pliskova’s serve as a result.

Pliskova grew increasingly frustrated as the match wore on, and her racket paid the price. She drew a warning after swiping her racket on the court trailing 0-40 in the sixth game of the second set. She has reached the quarterfinals or better at all five tournaments she played this year, and will move up to No. 4 despite Saturday’s loss.

Although she gave Barty credit for the victory, Pliskova said she hadn’t fully recovered from her rain-delayed semifinal that ended at 1:30 a.m. Friday. She said she didn’t go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning.

“I was tired, super tired,” Pliskova said. “And also, the conditions were completely different than what I have played the night matches. I think the experience to not play a day match was also, you could see a little bit, because she played some day matches. She played some doubles, also. So that was a little bit the difference.”

Barty, 22, was seeded No. 12 and pumped her fists when Pliskova’s forehand sailed long on match point.

“When I play my best, I’m good enough to match up with the very best in the world and I just need to keep giving myself opportunities to challenge myself and play against the best,” Barty said.

Bryans Win Doubles: American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, who are 40 years old, won their sixth Miami Open doubles title on Saturday, beating Wesley Koolhoff of the Netherlands and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece 7-5, 7-6 (10-8). It was their first Masters event final as a team since Bob, who lives in Sunny Isles with his wife and three children, underwent a right hip replacement last August. The brothers, who have won 16 Grand Slam titles, reunited on the court in January, and won a title at Delray Beach.

“I didn’t think I’d ever come back, so shout out to my wife and Mike, thanks for taking me back,” Bob said.

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Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.