“This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen.”
That thought probably came to your mind more than once while the women’s draw was unfolding at the 2019 French Open. The insanity started with Johanna Konta turning her supposed discomfort on red dirt into a series of thunderous wins over fancied opponents. And it ended with Ashleigh Barty using her unmistakably grasscourt game to win the biggest claycourt tournament in the world.
Konta, at least, has the heavy power off both wings — which is usually effective on any surface — to justify her surprising run through the draw. What’s Barty’s excuse?
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of spunk. In other words, Barty was the only one who didn’t know that her game wasn’t supposed to work on clay. And as she now proudly cradles the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, she has shown that that is sometimes the best way to look at a problem of non-conformity.
That Barty is not one to conform, whether to the unsaid rules of professional sport or to the overbearing mandates of society, was evident when she took a now-famous break from tennis to dabble in professional cricket. She was stubborn enough, and hard-working enough, and athletic enough, to participate and excel in two sports as different as chalk and cheese.
All of those qualities were in stark evidence during her march to the Roland Garros title, and the most significant reasons why she could pull off what she did.
For the affable Aussie, it all started with the serve. Like Konta’s powerful groundstrokes, a good serve is useful on any surface, and Barty ensured that she made full use of her big weapon.
Displaying picture-perfect technique in her service motion and finding pinpoint accuracy when she most needed it, Barty won over 70 percent of her first serve points through the tournament. It wasn’t just about power either; the 23-year-old expertly alternated her flat serves with the high kicker in the ad court and the dipping slider in the deuce court, recalling the similarly unreadable serve of her countrywoman Samantha Stosur.
It seemed like whenever Barty was not firing an ace or a service winner on the first delivery, she was forcing a short return that made for an easy forehand putaway. That, in effect, was half the battle won, at least on her own serve.
But on clay, the return and ground game are as important as the serve. Even if Barty was winning her service games with ease, how was she managing to hold off her opponents when she didn’t have such a reliable tool to start the point with? That was the one area where Barty’s recent improvements truly came to the fore.
When I first saw Barty play a couple of years ago, I thought to myself she had the consistency and variety to hang with anyone, but not the raw muscle to push her opponents back behind the baseline. On Saturday, Barty still doesn’t have the kind of firepower to match that of someone like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, but she does have something they don’t: the vision to use the full dimensions of the court.
Over the last few months, Barty has started finding acute angles with her forehand more frequently than she used to, pulling her opponents wide of the court or even striking outright winners with it. With a more aggressive mindset than before and a greater willingness to flatten out her groundstrokes, Barty has been outnumbering significantly bigger opponents in the winners’ column. Against the effortlessly powerful Amanda Anisimova in the semi-final, Barty hit nearly double the number of winners as the American — 40 to 21.
Barty is, ironically, reaping richer rewards on clay by going for less topspin. But if you take a second to think about it, it isn’t that ironic. Considering her short 5’7” frame, the only way Barty could have stayed toe-to-toe with the modern powerhouses on clay was by changing the terms of the battle. Hitting flatter and into the corners before the others could, was exactly the change that was needed.
What Barty didn’t have to change was the wicked backhand slice that so captivated us all from start to finish. A slice, as we all know, works best when the surface has low or skiddy bounce. On the high-bouncing clay, it often sits up and begs to be hit, as Roger Federer has found to his dismay so often against Rafael Nadal.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Barty has a better slice than Federer (although most would agree their slices are comparable in terms of bite and viciousness). But by combining the slice with her unparalleled athleticism, she created a force-field that nobody in the women’s draw quite knew how to counter.
When Barty followed a slice by rushing the net, she was soft enough with her hands to knock off difficult volley winners. When she used it to create depth or width and push her opponents out of position, she was agile enough to run around the backhand and laser a forehand in the other direction. And when she caressed a short slice that was met with a reciprocal drop shot, she was alert enough to sprint forward and eventually manufacture an overhead.
The backhand slice is traditionally considered a grasscourt player's weapon, but Barty managed to turn it into an asset even on clay.
And yet, none of this would have mattered if Barty didn’t have the single most important quality that is required in a French Open champion: Blazing foot-speed. The Australian could make her unconventional game work so well on clay because she was always a step ahead of everyone else. Whether she was running side to side while defending, or back to front while attacking, or even zig-zag while responding to her opponent’s own wily court craft, Barty was the personification of the Energiser Bunny. She was, almost literally, everywhere.
Before the start of the season, Barty was far from confident about her movement on clay. She said after the match, “I said to my team at the start of the year I was just worried about falling over, and I can successfully say that we got to the end of the claycourt season and I did not fall over once. So I’m pretty pumped with that.”
The rest of us are pretty pumped too. Aside from the fact that the now the World No 2 is an immensely likeable personality who has earned widespread applause and affection from both her peers and the fans, Barty’s win has sent out an important reminder that the modern game doesn’t necessarily have to be all about unbridled power — a reminder that can only be good for the sport.
What is especially encouraging in this regard is that Barty’s game might not be too difficult to replicate. Hers is a throwback style rather than a wizard-like one; think Amelie Mauresmo more than Agnieszka Radwanska. And now that coaches around the world know such a style is still capable of succeeding at the highest level, they would likely be more inclined to teach their wards a thing or two about the slice and the volley.
For a while now we’ve been trained to think that there’s only one feasible way for women to play professional tennis. Barty’s win has shown us that that is not true. So hopefully, the next time a player with an eclectic game runs through the draw at a Slam, we won’t be thinking, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen.” Instead, we will be going: “What’s the next wonderful way the sport is going to surprise us?”
Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 08:38:18 IST