Where were you when Maria Sharapova was tearing through the Wimbledon 2004 draw? Or when Justine Henin was lighting up the big stage with her backhand at the 2001 French Open? Or when Serena Williams was first redefining power and athleticism in the women’s game at the 1999 US Open?
That stunning breakthrough run of a bona fide superstar is always memorable, and always filled with unmistakable signs of future success. There’s usually something about a player destined for greatness – a revolutionary shot, an innate skill, a fiery killer instinct – that gives us enough clues about what is to come.
Amanda Anisimova’s march to the French Open 2019 semi-final has that kind of feel to it. She had already given us an indication of her potential with her calm demolition of Aryna Sabalenka at the Australian Open, but at Roland Garros, she has gone one step – or several steps – further.
Anisimova faced defending champion Simona Halep in the quarter-final, and she acted like she was playing an unseeded no-name. Unleashing effortless power the like of which has rarely been seen in the women’s game, the 17-year-old consistently put the ball out of Halep’s reach without ever needing to take huge cuts at it. Her sense of timing and control was so radically unexpected that the Romanian didn’t even move towards many of the winners that went whizzing past her.
Anisimova has come through her first five tests at the tournament literally unscathed – she hasn’t dropped a set yet. Now a sixth test awaits, in the form of Ashleigh Barty, and it might be the most unsettling one of all.
That Barty has an all-court game built on a combination of athleticism and guile was clear right from the start of her career. What was less clear was how that game would translate to slower surfaces, and clay in particular. We have our answer now.
Displaying an eclectic style that seems far more suited to the lawns of Wimbledon than the dirt of Paris, Barty has, with her run to the semi-finals, made us question everything we know about claycourt tennis. She has faced a slew of quality opponents – Danielle Collins, Andrea Petkovic, Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys – and turned them all inside out with her big serve, her delicate slice, and her creative defence.
In theory, Barty’s game doesn’t sound like it should work on clay, but reality has proven that our theory was all wrong.
At the start of the tournament, nobody in their right mind would have predicted this semi-final matchup. But after the completion of five rounds, everybody would agree that these two players deserve the big stage more than any other player from their half of the draw.
This is the first Grand Slam semi-final appearance for both Barty and Anisimova, and in all likelihood the first of many. Anisimova is young enough to have entered the junior draw (and many of her peers are still playing the girls’ tournament), but the fundamentals of her game are sharply tuned already. It’s hard to imagine she won’t get even better in the years to come; has there ever been a teenage Slam semi-finalist who never got to that stage again?
Barty, on the other hand, returned to tennis just a couple of years ago from her stint in professional cricket, and at 23 seems ready to solidify her place in the top echelon of the sport. This is the second successive Slam where she has reached the quarterfinals or better, and it comes just two months after her maiden Premier Mandatory title at Miami.
Neither Anisimova nor Barty seems like a fluke semi-finalist by any stretch of the imagination. And a matchup that combines Barty’s finesse with Anisimova’s easy power is the best possible advertisement for women’s tennis; Barty vs Anisimova is the semi-final of our dreams, if only we had dared to dream of it.
As you’d expect, these two have never faced each other on the tour. That would give Barty a bit of an automatic edge; as the more experienced player, she has faced a wider variety of opponents and so would be better placed to deal with new challenges. Anisimova hasn’t had to play a slice-reliant player like Barty too many times in her career, while the Australian has faced more than her fair share of power hitters over the years.
But Anisimova is not just any power hitter. Her ability to hit with consistent depth even when put on the run, coupled with the disguise on her shots that enables her to wrong-foot her opponents with ease, make her a particularly dangerous customer. Anisimova is also very comfortable on clay unlike many players of her ilk; she reached the junior French Open final when she was just 14, and a month ago won her first WTA title on the claycourts of Bogota.
Anisimova’s story so far seems almost identical to the way her idol Maria Sharapova first rose through the ranks. They are both American residents born to Russian parents, they are both equipped with a power-based game that first caught everyone’s eye when they were 17, and they both play their most fearless tennis when put under pressure. Unfortunately for Anisimova though, there’s another thing that she shares in common with Sharapova: discomfort while playing in the forecourt. And that could well be exploited mercilessly by her opponent.
Barty doesn’t just have a brilliant slice; she is also an expert at drawing players to the net and then passing or lobbing them. It is almost a given that she will repeatedly try to make Anisimova rush forward with her short slices and drop shots. Whether the American has the technique and the composure to put away enough volleys will possibly be the most significant feature of the match.
Barty also has a clear advantage in the serve department. She has one of the smoothest service actions on the tour right now, and through the first five rounds here has won over 75 percent of her first serve points. Anisimova on her part does have a solid second serve, but her first serve can leave a little to be desired; she often goes for depth at the expense of pace.
In addition to all this, there’s the inescapable matter of Anisimova’s age. Nobody is born with the ability to handle stage fright from the get-go, and it would be perfectly understandable if the 17-year-old succumbs to the stress of a Slam semi-final. We can’t and shouldn’t expect Anisimova to remain totally composed if she concedes an early lead in the biggest match of her career; after all, she hasn’t even been put under the pressure of a deciding set so far in the tournament.
Despite the odds being against Anisimova, why does it feel like a huge risk to bet against her? I’ll tell you why: her game has a revolutionary quality to it, and seems destined to bring her Slam success sooner or later.
Prediction: Anisimova to win in straight sets.
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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 14:01:01 IST