Defending champ Ash Barty returns to Miami Open final

MIAMI -- In her first match at this year's Miami Open, Ash Barty was one point from elimination.

Now she's one win from becoming a repeat champion. The top-ranked Barty returned to the final by beating No. 5-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-3 on Thursday.

Barty has gained momentum after starting the tournament by saving a match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova. That was Barty's first match outside her native Australia since February 2020.

"Whenever you come back from a match point, it's a little bit of a strange feeling," Barty said. "You have to be more open with what the possibilities the rest of the tournament could be, and keep going out there and keep fighting, knowing you could have just as easily been out of the tournament."

Barty, who is assured of retaining her No. 1 ranking next week, will play for the title Saturday against the winner of the second semifinal between No. 8 Bianca Andreescu and No. 23 Maria Sakkari.

Barty was locked down for a year in Australia because of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 Miami Open. She won the event in 2019, and said her run to that title was different from this year's matches in Miami.

"Chalk and cheese," the Aussie said. "The conditions have been different here this week. It has been a lot warmer and physically very demanding."

Barty had been 1-5 previously against Svitolina, but took charge with two early breaks and used her strong serve and deep slices to keep the Ukrainian on the defensive.

Midway through the second set, Svitolina made a rare trip to the net, and Barty responded with a perfect lob winner that drew an appreciative pat of the racket strings from her opponent. On match point, Barty closed out the victory with a forehand winner and a fist pump.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.