Over the past couple of years, Ashleigh Barty has ticked more than one box on the self-improvement grid. Consistency off the ground? Check. Flattening out the forehand? Check. Using the backhand slice as a surprise weapon rather than a stock shot? Check. Believing in her herself even when the odds are against her? Double check.
That last bit has been her biggest ally as she has traversed the journey from mid-tier player to dominant champion. And it was in full display again as she overcame a sizeable threat from Alison Riske to move to a second consecutive quarter-final at her home Slam.
The challenge for Barty had begun even before the start of the match. She and Riske had played twice before and the latter had come away victorious each time, so there were bound to be doubts in the Australian’s mind as she took the court for Sunday’s fourth-round contest. Granted, both the earlier matches had taken place on grass – Riske’s favorite surface by far – but it was easy to see there is something about the American’s game that matches up well with Barty’s.
Is it Riske’s on-the-rise, flat hitting from close to the baseline that reduces the impact of Barty’s spin – both top and slice? Or is it her ability to hit to safe spots even while being aggressive, which robs the Aussie of court positioning? Fortunately for Barty, she didn’t have to worry too much about either of those things in the first set as Riske was unable to keep the ball in play long enough to make much of an impression.
The American committed 13 unforced errors in that set, which allowed Barty the time and space to assume control. She used both her crosscourt forehand and her trusted slice to get Riske on the move, which was usually enough to elicit a miss. Perhaps the wildly pro-Barty crowd also contributed to Riske’s nervousness; when the second set began, starting afresh would’ve been all that she’d have wanted to do.
Was that the moment where her confidence from her previous wins over Barty became a factor? It may have been, because Riske launched a precision-based attack right from the start of the second set, to effect an almost complete role reversal from the first.
All the things in her armory that had hurt Barty at Wimbledon last year – her eagerness to attack behind her serve, her ability to take full advantage of second serves by returning with incredible depth, her tendency to come over the ball and smother Barty’s spin – came into focus at the same time.
The crowd refused to keep quiet even while Barty seemed to be staring down the barrel, but there was a distinct unease in the air as their darling stepped up to serve at the start of the third set. And that was the moment where the World No 1 reminded everyone that she had an ace up her sleeve that was immune to any kind of matchup issues she had with Riske: her serve.
Barty regained the sting on her starting shot, preempting all of Riske’s attacks with its accuracy. And when she got an early break and quickly built on it for a 4-1 lead, the match seemed to be in her bag.
The crowd breathed easy again.
Amazingly however, Riske was determined to keep the show going. She held serve with some breathtakingly brave groundstrokes and then put pressure on the Barty serve, eventually breaking back for 3-4. When the American held for 4-4, it looked like Barty was on the verge of collapse.
The Barty of old probably would have been. But the new Barty believes. She put all of her focus into her best shot again and hammered a couple of unreturnables for a 5-4 lead – which would eventually prove insurmountable.
A double fault on match point from Riske was an unfortunate way to end a supremely entertaining contest, but it was symbolic in that it highlighted the difference between the serves of the two women. Barty lost just nine points on her first serve in the entire match – and just one point in the decider – while Riske had a significantly more pedestrian 60% (30 out of 50 points won) record on the same shot.
“It was third time a charm for me tonight,” Barty said after the match. “I just had to hang in there. It was very tough from both ends playing very differently. I just had to give myself a chance.”
Barty may not have solved her matchup problems with Riske yet, but she won the battle against the nerves of facing a bogeyman opponent. And she will have to win another such battle in the quarter-final, where she takes on last year’s runner-up Petra Kvitova.
Like Riske, Kvitova poses similar problems to Barty with her flat groundstrokes and attacking mindset. It’s no coincidence that both Kvitova and Riske like playing on grass more than any other; the tools that they possess are tailor-made to counter a game that is predicated on heavy spin.
Barty has gone some way towards solving the Kvitova riddle, having beaten her in three matches last year. But those weren’t the only matches the two played against each other in 2019. The two most memorable episodes of their rivalry transpired right here in Australia, with Kvitova winning both – first in Sydney, and then the all-important quarterfinal in Melbourne.
“I love Petra, but let’s hope she doesn’t break my heart again on Tuesday,” Barty said when asked about the upcoming clash. “I've played Petra a few more times.
Tactically the last few times we've played Petra, we've had a small, small adjustment, small change. It's never an easy match. I think maybe all but one have gone to three sets. I think I'm looking forward to another battle against a quality opponent.”
She isn’t the only one looking forward to the high-octane clash. Both Barty and Kvitova seem to be at the top of their games right now, and their battle is widely expected to be the highlight match on Tuesday.
Barty is ranked a lot higher than what she was last year, and the fact that she has been drawn to face Kvitova in the quarters again could be seen as a sign. But what kind of sign, exactly? That she’s destined to keep succumbing to Kvitova’s spin-smothering game, or that she deserves the opportunity to showcase how well she’s learned to deal with her natural obstacles?
If her clutch performance to beat Riske is any indication, I’d be inclined to go with the latter.
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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2020 19:49:45 IST