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Barty beats Pliskova for Miami Open title

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Amid the unpredictable swirl of this year’s tennis results, with 33 different champions in 33 tournaments, Ashleigh Barty provides a change of pace.

The crafty 5-foot-5 Australian mixes backhand slices and drop shots with a deceptively strong serve and a knack for attacking, which is how she won the Miami Open.

Barty had a career-high 15 aces and became the newest 2019 titlist on the ATP and WTA circuits by beating Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (1), 6-3 Saturday.

That means there still has not been a repeat champion this year among the men or women.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Barty said. “On the women’s side, I think the level has evened out a lot, and the depth has grown over the last few years. Everyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning the tournament, and you try to make the most of it.”

In Miami, Barty did. The former professional cricket player won her fourth tennis title and the biggest of her career to improve to 18-3 this year. At age 22, she’ll rise next week to a career-high ranking of No. 9.

Barty became the fifth different Miami Open women’s champion in the past five years, and she’s the 14th different WTA titlist in 2019.

Roger Federer could become tennis’ first repeat champion this year when he plays John Isner in the men’s final Sunday. Federer won Dubai early this month.

Barty’s large repertoire of shots is both entertaining and effective, and she kept a weary Pliskova off balance while finding the open court for 41 winners.

“I’ve always tried to bring as much variety to the court as possible,” Barty said. “It’s about trying to neutralize what your opponent is doing. There was a phase in women’s tennis of big power and first strikers, but physicality in tennis has grown, which has allowed more players to neutralize the big first ball and work their way into the point.”

Barty can strike quickly, too. Her surprising serve was superior in the final even though Pliskova is 8 inches taller at 6-foot-1.

The Aussie won a 14-stroke rally with a nifty backhand drop shot to go up 2-1 in the tiebreaker, and she was ahead the rest of the way. She outlasted Pliskova in a 20-point game to break at the start of the second set, smacked three consecutive aces for a 3-1 lead, and won eight of the final nine points.

Pliskova, seeded fifth, blamed her fade on fatigue. Because of rain delays, her semifinal win over No. 2-seeded Simona Halep lasted until early Friday morning, and she looked flat-footed in the final.

“Run, run,” Pliskova’s coach, Conchita Martinez, implored during a changeover.

“I was tired, super tired,” Pliskova said. “If I felt a little bit more fresh, it could maybe be different.”

Barty made sure Pliskova never got her second wind, striking from all over the court. Among the Aussie’s most acrobatic shots was a leaping overhead winner struck while backpedaling in pursuit of a lob. The crowd loved it, and so did she.

“It’s pretty cool to have played such a good match today in a big situation,” she said.

Barty won the Wimbledon girls’ title in 2011 at age 15, but gave up tennis to play professional cricket in Brisbane before returning to the tour in 2016.

This year she lost in the final at Sydney, a moment she listed as the most painful in her career. Less than three weeks later she reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open.

“That’s why I love the sport,” Barty said. “You have these amazing moments, and you have these heartbreaking moments. But the journey in the middle is pretty bloody good.”

John Isner advances to final on Newport’s hot grass courts

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Top-seeded John Isner overcame extremely hot conditions and a first-set tiebreaker loss to beat fourth-seeded Ugo Humbert of France 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3 on Saturday and advance to the Hall of Fame Open final.

The 34-year-old American will face Alexander Bublik, a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4 winner over Marcel Granollers of Spain. The 22-year-old Bublik, from Kazakhstan, reached his first career ATP final.

The matches were played before induction ceremonies for the 2019 class of Li Na from China, Mary Pierce of France, and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Playing in a feel-like temperature in the 90s, Isner, ranked 15th in the world coming into the week, broke in the second game of the final set – the first break of the match – en route to his fourth final on Newport’s grass courts. He won in 2011, `12 and ’17.

“The length of the match is fine. That’s what happens, especially with matches like mine,” the big-serving Isner said. “It’s really hot and humid and takes a lot (out) of you. To be honest, I don’t feel really great right now.”

Isner is into his 28th ATP final.

In a match that lasted 2 hours, 44 minutes, started in sunshine and ended with shadows creeping nearly halfway across the court, Isner had two aces in the final game to go up 40-0.

He hit a forehand winner at the net and pumped his fist when it ended.

Isner hit a forehand winner down the line to win the second-set tiebreaker and force the deciding set.

“That was a big shot,” he said. “I always say when I win the second set, I’m going to win the match.”

Bublik broke in the fifth game of the final set to take control of his match.

Just before he closed it out, an elderly female fan, seated courtside in the sun, was carried out on a chair by two men with ushers helping. The feel-like temperature at the time was in the upper 90s with the sun beating down on the court and some spectators.

“It’s hot,” said Bublik when asked about the conditions during a post-match interview on the court. “I’m just glad I won a match.”

The stadium seating and courtside seats – both located in the sun and usually at least about three-quarters full on induction day – had less than a hundred people seated for both semifinals.

Li Na’s journey to stretch from China to Hall of Fame

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NEW YORK — Li Na remembers first watching a tennis match on TV, drawn to the unforgettable style of one of the players.

Andre Agassi had long hair, an earring and wore denim shorts, and made an instant fan in China.

“Andre Agassi is my role model,” Li said.

Li went on to become one herself.

The first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title, she will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend, celebrated not only for her skills on the court but for her contribution to the growth of the sport in her country.

“She’s like an icon in China. She’s a huge superstar,” said Mike Silverman, the director of sport for New York’s City Parks Foundation.

Li conducted a clinic with children from the organization on Thursday and her influence was obvious. Many of the young players were Asian, including one teenage boy Silverman thinks is good enough to get a college scholarship. They were probably too young to remember much of her career – she retired in 2014 because of knee problems – but her impact didn’t end when her playing days did.

“There’s no question that Li Na, when she was playing and even now, tennis in China has never been the same since she won the French Open,” Silverman said. “It changed everything.”

That was in 2011, when more than 116 million people in China watched the final. Li added a second major title in 2014 at the Australian Open after twice losing in its final, rose to No. 2 in the WTA rankings and earned more than 500 singles wins.

“At least I always try my best in tennis on the court,” Li said. “If you try everything I think one day for sure there will be payback.”

The mother of two children is a little nervous about the induction ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, as she tries to put together her thoughts in English. But perhaps she can take a lesson from something else she admired about Agassi.

“He never cared about what other people say, he just did his own,” said Li, who is joined in this year’s class by fellow two-time Grand Slam singles champions Mary Pierce of France and Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia.

Li said she can see the growth of tennis in China, where the WTA Finals will be played in Shenzhen and which got another event on the tour’s calendar this year when the former Connecticut Open was moved to Zhengzhou.

“It’s not only good for the athletes, it’s also good for the fans to have less traveling,” Li said. “They can see a high-level tournament in China.”

Fans can see plenty of them, as there are nine women’s tournaments in China after the U.S. Open. The country may not have a long tennis history, but Li thinks it will continue to get bigger.

“For me, I think China tennis is still young,” she said. “They can have a lot of time to grow up.”