French Open 2019: Once a tennis want-away, Ashleigh Barty embraces the game and pressure to enter maiden Slam final
Barty, having lost and found tennis again, taught a thing or two about court craft to teenage sensation Amanda Anismova during their French Open semi-final clash
Ashleigh Barty is not your typical 21st-century women’s tennis player. In fact, there was a time when she didn’t quite want to be a tennis player at all.
Short (5'5") but sturdy, she weaves points a la Martina Hingis, rather than spewing power. Barty, having lost and found tennis again, taught a thing or two about court craft to teenage sensation Amanda Anismova during their French Open semi-final clash on Friday. Barty battled to a 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 victory in a match that had more mood swings than the Parisian weather on the day to enter her first Grand Slam final.
“That was one of the toughest things I have been through,” said the 23-year-old. “My toughest match mentally, physically, the occasion, the conditions – it was pretty brutal out there. I played some really good tennis and some pretty awful tennis.”
The Australian, a promising junior, had stepped away from the game as a teenager, admitting the whirlwind tennis tour was “it was too much too quickly.” She found cricket, a sport she had never played as a kid, was successful enough to compete in the Women’s Big Bash T20 League. But she decided to return to tennis in 2016 and had, till now, had her biggest moments in doubles. She has competed in the women’s doubles final of all four Grand Slams and won the 2018 US Open with USA’s CoCo Vandeweghe.
That success has rubbed off on her singles game as well, as Barty has risen from 272 in 2016 to No 8 in the world currently – she will be ranked No 2 in the world on Monday if she does win the French Open. The Australian has secured the most number of wins so far this year – 24—on the women’s tour. And she’s on the prowl for more.
Barty, who was compared to Hingis by the Swiss player’s former coach David Taylor in 2014 as a teenager, has been kryptonite for the Americans at this tournament. Having defeated Danielle Collins, Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys en route the final four, she quashed their next-gen sensation in the semi-finals. Anisimova was quite the ice queen only the day before, coming up with a cool, clinical show against defending champion Simona Halep that belied her age – 17. But Barty’s acumen and the swirling wind at Court Suzanne-Lenglen knocked off some of the poise.
Less than half an hour into the match, Barty had raced to a 5-0 lead. Anisimova, perhaps awed by the occasion, and shell-shocked by Barty’s precision had managed to win only three points up until that points. But rather than surrender the set, Anisimova tightened her defences, and started pinning Barty closer to the baseline with deeper groundstrokes. The American staged a thrilling comeback, leveling the set at 5-5 and then winning it in the tie-breaker.
She jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second set; it was now up to Barty to claw back into the match. The Australian started taking more shots on her more powerful forehand and controlling the rallies from there. More than the pace, it was Barty’s placement that had Anisimova in a world of trouble. The American was made to constantly change direction on the slippery clay and kept out of her hitting zone. Barty, meanwhile, preyed on the short ball and constantly kept moving into the court. She hit a total of 40 winners – to Anisimova’s 21—and won 13 of her 21 net points.
“I was 5-Love up in probably all of 15 minutes, I think, and didn't really do a hell of a lot to get to that stage,” said Barty, who hit 40 winners. “Amanda gave me some cheapies. I felt I put the ball where I needed to, and then I went away from what was working. I was really happy the way I was able to respond at a set and 3-Love and to really turn the match on its head, even though it wasn't the best tennis in pretty tough conditions. That's probably what I'm most proud of.”
The third set turned into a battle of will. Barty sneaked into a 4-2 lead, but Anisimova never really gave an impression of going away. The two women tested and teased each other, with slices and drop shots. While the American wore her emotions on her (long) sleeves, Barty remained quite unmoved at the other end. She needed every ounce of that composure as she sought to close out the match, one she had won and lost and was on the verge of winning again.
She had worked her way to 0-40 lead, and a triple match point, on Anisimova’s serve at 5-2 in the set. But just like the American had refused to fade away in the first set, she hung on, hit with more purpose when down. Barty saw two more match points slip away, when she served for the match at 5-3. The Parisian crowd was cheering on the younger player to stage another unlikely comeback. But on her sixth match-point, Barty took control of the rally, and set up victory by caressing a backhand down the line.
There were no wild celebrations for the 23-year-old, who became the first Australian since Samantha Stosur (2011 US Open) to make a Grand Slam final. “It's all incredible, I can't believe it, and I can't wait to be in the final,” an excited Barty said in the courtside interview. Having once turned away from the game and its pressures, Barty is now embracing them whole-heartedly.
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